It’s been two weeks since I began working from home, in a 10×10 ft room populated by a queen size bed, an oddly shaped cabinet for clothes, books against the window, a range of pictures taped to the wall, and now a modestly sized desk that buttresses by laptop and monitor. I’m extremely fortunate to have a comfortable room to work in from home, and a giant window that overlooks the highway and a few tall buildings, letting in ample sunlight throughout the day.
But it hasn’t been without challenges. Working from home presents its own challenges.
Our routines have been overthrown
Some people swear by a life of spontaneity; unfortunately, I’m quite the opposite. If we were still wandering the deserts of sahara, I could see myself adapting to a day filled with (hopefully pleasant) surprises. But we’ve come a long way since, since we began putting down roots in the agrarian period about 11,000 years ago.
For over a year now, I’ve held a stable routine of going to the office, followed by the park, and finally the library before coming home. Now, the very different kind of work I engaged in at these locations is confined to my desk, robbing the chances of creativity. There is a good chance you all set a routine for yourself, even if it changed between each days of the week. While routines seem to signify rigidity, it also greatly improves your mental health in ways you might not be aware of.
It’s true. There is a good argument for humans wanting to seek novelty. In fact, novelty bias is one of the over 175 biases we are afflicted with.
To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new—the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. – The Organized Mind
Yet, what is it that makes us enjoy our favorite song even if it has been on repeat for a week? Why do we re-watch some TV series when we can recite every dialogue from it (F.R.I.E.N.D.S!)? Although novelty grabs our attention, it is overrated. Ed O’Brien, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, assembled a research study to test the hypothesis of enjoying repeat experiences. Counter to previous research, Mr. O’Brien found that across the board, repeat experiences were far more enjoyable than participants predicted.
“Novel experiences are definitely great for enjoyment, and our studies don’t go against this idea,” he says. “In many cases, the novel option is better. But what our studies emphasize is that repeat options also might have high hedonic value and might also come with less costs to acquire than a purely novel option, and people might sometimes overlook this.” – The New York Times
Routines are built through these repeat experiences, which if practiced enough registers as a daily habit. Although working from home has put a dent in your day-to-day routine, you can still practice it by doing the tasks you would have done otherwise in limited capacity.
Many freelancers swear by a midday walk or exercise session, which can be a vital reset. And when it’s 5 p.m. or when I’m finished with my tasks for the day, I commit to the physical act of closing my computer. I make sure I’m present with my family. I cook dinner, we all sit at the table and eat, and then we play a board game or watch a movie. I make sure to spend my evenings doing something that feels like home. – David Dennis, Forge
We feel more guilty when we waste time
Working from home saves you time. Period. Even though I live a block away from my office, I can still save a modest 20 minutes commuting between the office, library, and home. For an average American who spends 1 hour per day on commute, it adds up to a significant five hours per week. And what happens when we’re faced with abundance? Paradox of choice. The paradox of choice is an observation that having many options to choose from, rather than making us happy and content, can cause stress and makes decision-making more complex.
Our brain finds it hard to handle this shift from scarcity to abundance – we get overly optimistic about achieving more than our average capacity, and end up wondering where all those Sunday afternoon hours disappeared. I spent the afternoon today engaging in leisure tasks and letting my brain wander around, convincing myself that I had enough time to write and publish this article. Although I did end up publishing it as planned, another task I had set for myself fell through the cracks.
There is another element to this when you’re working from home. At work, you’re accustomed to taking a stroll to the kitchen, stopping by your co-worker’s desk for a quick chat, or stopping by the game room for a ping-pong match with your friends. Although none of these are productive tasks by themselves, they act as a break from your routine which in fact rejuvenates your brain to get back to work. However, at home when there’s no place to wander and no one to talk to, you resort to checking your phone or sitting on the couch to watch TV. And end up feeling guilty about not working.
To help with the issue of abundance, it helps to externalize your plans for the day onto the calendar and time-box each activity, even if it pertains to your personal life. By doing so, you will clear your head and free your brain of clutter.
When I think proactively about how I want to spend my time — when I separate the planning from the doing — I can throw myself into each moment with joyful abandon and my full attention. No second-guessing, rationalization, or discipline required. – John Zeratsky, Speaker and Author
What is important however, is that you are kind to yourself and give the much-needed breaks throughout the day that helps you do your primary job better. When you’re planning for the day, don’t assign yourself more tasks than you would have done on a regular day, when there was no pandemic. I realized this over the past two weeks. Although having uninterrupted 16 hours looked lucrative at first, I underestimated the much needed time I spent before walking on roads, checking my phone, and listening to songs.
All boundaries disappear
This alludes to the first point about the disruption in our routines. Because we’re confined to this limited space day in and out, the boundary lines start to become blurry. You begin to eat where you sleep, or where you work (yours truly). My chair has replaced the slightly wet soft grass in the park. My window replaced the glass walls of the library. The commute to and from office has become a two feet jump from my bed to my desk. This convenience brings with it a sense of mundane.
Have you ever felt like the most insightful thoughts you’ve had all happened in a specific location, possibly one where you read a lot or practice music? There is a reason behind this. In his book The Organized Mind, Dan says that our learning is influenced by context and by the location where the learning takes place. Students who studied for an exam in the room they later took it in did better than students who studied somewhere else. This is possibly because of the context effect, which says that people are better at recalling information in a particular context or location where they first learnt that information.
Photo Courtesy: Similar contexts improve your recall
When we begin to coalesce different aspects of our life, the element of creativity offered through the virtue of varied locations disappear. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury to go to the places we normally do right now. Safety trumps all. But, taking a walk inside your apartment complex or in the nearby park (assuming there isn’t a restriction), or even inside your home frequently, helps to a small extent.
But reverting back to the original point, it helps to assert some boundaries around the various rooms in your home. I hope to do this by eating food at the dining table (or really anywhere that is not my bedroom). And have a break between the end of a work day and the beginning of a personal day by taking a walk.
Present challenge becomes future normal
While working from home hijacked our routine, time, and boundaries without warning, this might not be a temporary change. Even before we heard of COVID-19, people were hailing remote work as a norm in the future. Although, the reasoning there had to do with its convenience and productivity benefits, as opposed to safety concerns. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 30% of U.S. workers had the ability to work from home at least part of the time in 2019, and one in four actually did.
Although we will face challenges in adopting to this change, there is a good chance that this becomes the new normal for some of us. With all the qualms, working from home also offers attractive upsides: you save time, your place of stay isn’t restricted by the location of your office, you save money (by cutting down on gas and rent), and it is undeniably more convenient. And as people are forced to realize this because of a pandemic, companies will too.
Once coronavirus has forced companies and workers to figure out how to function without an office, office space will start to look more like a luxury on the corporate balance sheet — something that’s nice to have, but which can be cut if needed. When companies realize how much business travel they can do without, they’ll be tempted to slash those budgets as well. – Will Oremus, OneZero
We might have been heading the way of working from home even without coronavirus in our lives, but it sure short-circuited this monumental shift.