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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Writer's Guide to Working From Home (Part 1 of 3)

We're going to toss our regular schedule, and do a couple of weeks of "Elephant-In-The-Room" posts about Coronavirus/Covid-19. They might be a little roughshod (as I'M a little roughshod right now). They might be a bit stream-of-conscious-y for what you're used to. They may be "about writing" in only the strictest sense. 

And today, an old hand's pragmatic advice for working at home, whether you're a writer trying to improve your productivity or you could just use a veteran's advice.

With Covid-19 sending gobs of people in non-essential services to work from home (interesting that it turns out they COULD have done this all along for folks with accessibility issues but...you know what, maybe another time), feeds of social media have become clogged with reports of wasted days, unproductive hours, and fractional output.

And some of that is just how things are going to be. Global pandemics can harsh the most jubilant of squees. And ideas about being super productive at a time like this can get bent.

But for some of you, you are obligated to get some work done from home.....AND this is your first rodeo. You're coming down in your bunny slippers and jam jams, bringing your bowl of Fruit Loops to the kitchen table where you have your laptop set up and trying to ignore the kids playing a Daniel Tiger/Zombie outbreak crossover a foot away from you. ("Always go for the double-tap, meow meow." "Because ♫grownups....come back♪." "I'll take up the rear since I'm facing backwards with the nifty galifty shotgun!" *cocking sound*) And gosh you sit there for fourteen hours and even do a working lunch, but you still don't seem to get a decent day's work done.

What gives? You didn't even have to commute?

It turns out that writers have been doing this Work At Home™ thing for YEARS, and I'm right there with them, so let me give you some advice that you might THINK doesn't matter that much, but it turns out it really, really does. And since there are already ten zillion of these listicles out there, I'm just going to have to write the one with more bad jokes than anyone else.

1- Suit Up and Show Up (Or "You're gonna wear THAT?") 

Look we've all seen the memes about how awesome it is not to wear pants and how writers never take off their pajamas. (Sultry voice: "Hi boys. I'm writing web copy for a living, and I'm not wearing ANYTHING." *bite sound*) I'm now going to blow the secret and risk thousands of angry writers getting pissed at me by telling you the truth.

Okay, but before I start running for my life, I'd like to point out
that y'all are not practicing proper social distancing.
Your "working mindset" is FAR more tied to your morning routine than anyone has really given behavioral psychology credit for. You are not going to feel like you're in "work mode" if you stumble out of bed and haven't even finished giving your crotch a proper scratch by the time you log into Zoom, are still wearing the boxer briefs and t-shirt that you slept in, or are pulling your laptop into bed with you.

Get ready for work. Get up. Have coffee. Do your thing. Shit. Shower. Shave––whatever you do in the mornings. Personally I take a piping hot shower and drink breakfast tea (only very rarely adding some kind of bagel or croissant if I woke up famished for some reason). I check Facebook from my phone and make sure my friends are okay before I get going with the day. I sometimes bring my tea to "work" but only the second cup. Never the first cup and never the food.

DRESS AS IF YOU WERE PHYSICALLY GOING TO WORK. This includes putting on your proper clothes. I mean you can kind of fiddle with the knobs as you go––if you take your jacket off as soon as you get to your desk and your tie knot is down near your navel by the end of the day anyway, maybe those things aren't part of your Productive Mode™ but assume you should put on everything and then pare down instead of dribbling into "work" in your sweats with the pit stains, smelling like yesterday's swampass, and wondering why you don't feel in the zone.

You're going to find your sweet spot in this. For some of us it's enough to switch from night time pajamas to day time pajamas. Me, I still get dressed and I've been making money enough to live on for years. Sometimes I go to write something down that I was thinking of in my sleep, and I look up from my day of blurry fingers and it's 5PM and I am still in Tardis boxers and a 15 year old Firefly t-shirt, but usually I have to treat my job and approach it with a properly prepared sense of decorum and professionalism. (Which for me is t-shirt and shorts or jeans, but at least I'm dressed.)

The Footwear Caveat
Twin engines of productivity right here, I'm telling you.

I can't stress this enough: THIS INCLUDES SOCKS AND SHOES. It might sound weird, but I strongly suggest you try it. The lack of compression on your feet will do more to keep you feeling "loose" than you might realize. Unless you run around your work barefoot or in just socks, put them on. Even if you only wear them to walk over, sit down, and slip them off under your desk the way you do at work, give it a try.

There's a reason taking them off feels so good.

I know some of you might need a "house pair" of shoes to pull this off because you don't wear shoes in the house. I myself have a pair of slippers that are tight enough to feel like my regular shoes for just that reason. I put them on and I just FEEL like it's time to kick the tires and light the fires. Because I have the need for speed.

That's right readers. I am.......dangerous.

2- Sorry Boss. It's 5:02. That PTS Report Will Have to Wait (Or "It's Miller Time!")

The fastest way this whole work from home thing goes into the shitter is that you lose your sense of time. And it's not going to happen because of chronotron radiation, inverted gravometric poleron bursts, or a temporal inversion along a subspace fissure. It's going to happen while you sit there and WATCH IT HAPPEN with a look of growing "that's not a moon" horror. And when it's over, you're going to look at the work you got done and say "But I had a whole, uninterrupted day?"

Yep. That's the problem. You had a whole, uninterrupted day.

Let me sum up. No....there's plenty of time. Let me explain.

Trust me. I get it. You sit down. Nothing on the schedule for the entire day. "Ahhhhh" you think. Finally a day without ANY interruptions. This is going to be so great! You do all the things you do at your regular job: Fuck off a little. Check social media a little. Answer a couple of emails. Call your partner. Browse Etsy for that cool Lady of Innsmouth sculpture that you want.  Then suddenly it's 9pm. And it's not like you ever LOST track of time. You just managed it terribly. Worse, apparently, than if you had less time and the same number of goals.

Here's why: You usually ramp up your productivity around your regimented schedule. I don't know if you work best when you first show up or in the last hour before you clock out, but those mile markers affect how you pace yourself. I'm not saying an eight hour day makes any goddamn sense, but a time you know you'll be done sure does. If you know you're off at five and you only have a finite amount of time to put in a work day, you're going to check Facebook for five minutes instead of an hour. You're going to skip that gun-control argument your friend is clearly dying to have. You're going to keep your emails brief. You're going to talk to your partner about buying some extra potatoes for the soup tomorrow and not go off on a twenty-minute tangent about how those kids down the street are still playing basketball and they're going to get their families sick if they're not careful.

Put the lid on the pot and it cooks faster. (That's a metaphor for you. I'm not still talking about those potatoes.)

You need to know when your day is over. Now for some of us writers that end comes with some other metrics like word count or page number, and if you have some productivity goals instead (provided that works for you), feel free to do it that way, but a big vast expanse of open time is a deadly trap. The more you look at it and think "Oh man. Nothing to bother me. I'm going to get SO much done," the more important it's going to be to place strict limits on yourself.

2b- "I Would Do That, But It's Time For My Federally Mandated Ten Minute Break."

Back when I was pet sitting I had a favorite client who lived in the city. I had to wish them the best after I dropped 90% of my pet-sitting clients to focus on writing. If they had been closer, I would have put them on the "A-List," but the traffic getting to their place was the worst and I didn't much like staying overnight, but once I was there, they were my absolutely favorite place to spend the day when I pet sit.

The reason was because the parking around their place absolutely sucked.

Nope. Not a typo. You read it right. I loved it not despite the shitty parking but because of it. ONE HOUR PARKING! It was the WORST! They were next to a hospital and between 9am and 5pm you had to go find new parking every single hour. As soon as I came in and sat down I had 55 minutes to do whatever before I was going to do before I had to go back out again.

I got so much fucking work done at that job you would not even believe. Because the entire day was like a time drill. I sat down and I was immediately aware of the next break. I watched the clock like a hawk and if I wanted to get something done before I had to go move the car again, I better pick up the pace.

Take ALL the breaks you would if you were at work. Whether they are running to Tchotchkes because you have a case of the Mondays or smoke breaks on the roof. Keep track of them and know they're coming.

Especially lunch. Don't grab a sandwich and come back to your desk (unless the occasional working lunch is some high powered shit you would do at your regular job). Go sit down somewhere else and have a meal where you don't think about work for 30-60 minutes. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but you're going to get MORE done if you take some breaks and unplug.

2c- "Live The Dream You Magnificent Human" (If You Can)

Quick caveat: a schedule (any schedule) is important, but working the bullshit capitalist-approved hours you did in your regular job doesn't have to be. Of course, I know some of you have to interact with coworkers and be on Zoom (or whatever) at the same times you always did, and some of you are expected to come out of the office and be a part of your family by 5 to tag in with little Suede and get dinner started, but for those that can make it happen, you can have structure without having a 9-5 structure. Ever wanted to sleep in until 10 or 11 and just work late? Or do you work much better in a power shot of four hours and then sit around trying to look busy for the rest of the day? Would you be SO much better in the afternoon if you could just have a nap around 2ish? Tired of losing ALL your momentum every single weekend, and you'd rather just work a few hours every single day and then take a couple of days off at the end of a project? Go for it! If you can, set your day up to be what works.

Quicker caveat to the quick caveat: Whatever you do––whether it is to work in a nap, start at noon, work three fevered hours or whatever, stick to your routine. Living the dream doesn't mean "Do whatever the hell you want." It means make your routine work for you. But it still needs to be a routine. You're going to be glad you have that rhythm.


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