Hello! Is this week 7 of lockdown or are we still in week 1 but in some kind of groundhog day loop? I’ve lost track. I’ve basically chucked my diary and am now telling the time through the length of my roots. In a funny way, this socially isolated life isn’t so different from my normal routine as a freelance writer. Or, as a friend observed, ‘I’m working in my pyjamas, not seeing anyone, eating cereal for all three meals, arguing with the dog… Basically, I just need to start moaning about commas on posters and I’m a novelist, right?’
Thanks. But… yes.
Anyway, since I can’t offer you PE lessons or guided meditations I thought I’d give you instead my top tips for working at home. First, make a cup of coffee. That’s not the first tip, by the way. You just always need a cup of coffee.
1. Get dressed. It sounds obvious, but if you don’t get dressed, you can’t get undressed. More on this later. When your kitchen is now your office, you need to do something to stop it feeling like your kitchen and that something is very slightly uncomfortable clothing. It doesn’t even have to be office wear – jeans will do. Anything that will prevent you from getting back into bed without feeling a bit ashamed. Or snacking too much. Remember, there will come a day when you’ll have to wear a belt again. A bit of formality is important, not so much that you might have to interact digitally (ew…) with your colleagues, but if you’re WFH with the rest of your family milling about in the background buttons send out a clear message that no, you can’t ‘just sort out the washing machine’ because see this shirt ? It’s ALL BUSINESS and HAS DEADLINES.
2. Wear your earrings. And by earrings I mean lipstick, or your favourite shirt, or that cologne you got for Christmas and were saving for best. Anything that makes you feel a bit better. We need small moments of joy right now, when big moments of joy seem a way off. For example… I bought myself a pair of pearl earrings back in February – hoo! Remember February? – to celebrate Unexpected Lessons in Love reaching the Sunday Times Top 10. (Incidentally ULIL is just 99p in ebook STILL, so please do treat yourself if you haven’t already.) When they arrived, they were so exquisite that I decided I couldn’t risk wearing them every day and put them away in their exquisite white box. Then this kerfuffle started and I found myself thinking of Elizabeth Taylor. Would Liz slob around in her sweatpants during a pandemic, eating bran flakes out of a cup? No, damn it. She’d have all her damn jewels on, and she’d get her damn hair done and she’d post Youtube clips of her butler mixing cocktails. So wear whatever cheers you up. A great example of this attitude is the inspirational Kemi Telford clothing line. I have to be happy when I wear Yvonne’s glorious, swishy skirts, even when I’m sitting at my desk making myself cry over my own book.
3. Get some headphones, and a focus app. If you’re easily distracted, working from home is a nightmare. One minute you’re sitting down at your desk with your first coffee of the day and a list of Good Intentions, the next it’s bloody five o’clock and you’re now an expert on school crazes of the 80s, the Bananarama videos you never saw first time round, and an aerial view of your parents’ old street. My friend Katy Regan introduced me to the Pomodoro concept of working for specific chunks of time instead of letting your concentration wander like a bored toddler around the internet. You set the app, and it ticks for 25 mins (or however long) then pings, permits you five minutes of frenzied Bananarama googling, then you’re back on. And on. Until a longer break. Then lunch. I’m using it right now. I’ve just ignored an M&S Sparks email and my husband. It’s that good.
4. Equip your desk with useful time-wasting stuff: nail file, nail buffer, cuticle oil, hand cream, refillable water bottle, tweezers, small mirror. If you’re going to procrastinate you might as well deal with your chin hair at the same time.
5. Get up and move around every so often. I’ve got a Fitbit that buzzes imperiously at ten to the hour to remind me I’ve been sat on my arse for too long. I usually ignore it, but you do need to move around now and again, if only to make it clear you haven’t fallen asleep at your desk. Fresh air helps to reboot your brain. I recommend a dog, although looking at the one I’ve got on the sofa behind me, you might need to give them the memo about lunchtime walking. (To be fair to Aurora, she’s pooped because there are four of us at home, we all want an hour’s exercise, so she thinks she’s on Dog Fat Farm.) If you don’t have your own portable exercise device, why not ask a neighbour if their dog needs a spin round the block – especially if they’re self-isolating. NB Should your ‘getting up and moving around’ consist mainly of going to the fridge, like me, then try to do pliés while the kettle’s boiling. Show willing.
6. Set realistic goals. When I first left my job in publishing to write full time, I moaned to my office friend, Shona, that I wasn’t getting much done. I kept stopping to make coffee, and emailing friends, and doing online shopping. Working from home was a complete disaster. Shona looked at me with pity in her eyes, and said, ‘But you never used to get much done before 4pm here, remember?’ This is a Weird Time (TM) and you are bound to get distracted by other people, by the panic-inducing alert noise of the BBC Breaking News app, by your dogs going nuts at the DPD man, by the concept of What Makes a Meaningful Life, by the strange simultaneous shrinkage of your entire wardrobe. Make a list of three things – or set a no-distractions working period – and complete it.
6. Stop working. This sounds obvious but it’s very easy to let your working day ooze messily into the rest of your life. Plus if you don’t create artificial deadlines, you’ll never get anything started and you’ll find yourself back at your desk at 11.45pm, when everyone else is in bed, trying to catch up with yourself. (When I say ‘you’ here, it’s really my inner voice talking to me. I’m sure you’re much better at this than me.) My working day ends when I put on my Hush harem pants. It’s hard to feel like the working version of yourself when you look like a giant, but very comfortable, baby.
7. Take no notice of other people’s dictats about how to work at home. Having confidently issued the above advice, I’m very aware that I’m speaking from the luxurious perspective of a household consisting of two dogs, and a selection of adults in varying stages of independence. The only demands on my attention are if the printer stops working, if the internet ‘goes off’ (my actual worst nightmare) or if the fridge mysteriously stops producing milk, butter and mini Magnums. (Maybe you too have one of these amazing fridges that apparently churns its own dairy products? They’re marvellous. Bosch, I think.) If you’re trying to work from home while also educating your children, then I take my hat off to you. Ignore the above, maybe apart from the noise-cancelling headphones, and give yourself a medal. And another cup of coffee.