How to Work From Home and Not Go Crazy

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©. K Martinko

Treehugger writers have been working from home forever, but many people are doing it for the first time as companies send them to work from the relative safety of home. Being Treehugger, we thought we would put together some tips and tricks for doing it in a way that is healthy, frugal, and green, based on our experience and a look at what others are writing.

Location, Location, Location

Some say that you should create a workspace. Trent Hamm of the Simple Dollar says, "Simply having a spot in your home that you only use for professional purposes eventually nudges you to switch into that mindset when you go to that spot. When you are in a particular chair or at a particular table or desk, you’re working; when you’re not there, you’re not working." Tech consultant Shelly Palmer says, "A defined workspace is critical to remote work. It can be a desk, a shelf, a counter, a chair, a corner on the floor near a power outlet, or the cupboard under the stairs, but you must set up a defined workspace... Importantly, it must be yours, and if it can’t be physically separated from the rest of your environment, it must be psychologically separated from it."

Or you could take advantage of the flexibility of not being trapped in one place. Treehugger's Lindsey Reynolds never stays still: "I usually transition where I work 5 to 7 times a day: office, back porch, front porch, living room, etc." Katherine Martinko is also on the move: "First two hours on the couch in front of fireplace. Most of morning at standing desk upstairs. Afternoon at dining table with laptop." Melissa Breyer has three 'stations', all by windows. I have my home office niche with a big iMac on a standing desk, but when I can't stand anymore I move to an old desk with my notebook.

If you do fix yourself in one spot, get a room with a view. Studies have shown that our bodies are attuned to circadian rhythms, to the change in the color of light throughout the day. If you trap yourself in a windowless space where the light never changes, you may feel very tired by mid-afternoon. Other studies have found that looking at trees and plants calms us down, reduces stress. Treehugger's Neil Chambers wrote about the benefits of biophilia: "Brought to the attention of the world by E.O. Wilson nearly 20 years ago, the theory says people love natural spaces like forests and meadows because we evolved within these ecological systems."

potted plants in window
©. Melissa Breyer

You can also surround yourself with plants like TreeHugger's Melissa Breyer, who has more of them than the Phipps Conservatory.

Dump the Distractions

Katherine says, "My phone is always on silent. No music." Lindsey somehow can "keep NPR on all day because I like to be informed and their voices are soothing to me." I find anything on in the background to be distracting, but I am lucky in that I have a volume control for my head with my Starkey Livio AI hearables and can just turn off distractions. I also have finally learned to control my addiction to Twitter by just turning it off.

Watch Your Work Habits

Get dressed for work. Katherine says, "Get dressed so you feel productive right away!" She also suggests that you "do a small amount of housework first thing, like breakfast dishes cleanup or put on a load of laundry. Then I'm not tempted to do anything else during the day."

This is particularly important if you use videoconferencing tools. Our new Dotdash owners introduced us to Zoom, and just yesterday I learned of a meeting fifteen minutes before it started and had to have a very quick shower and throw on some clothes, barely making the meeting.

Become a Creature of Habit

Shelly Palmer says morning rituals are sacred, and that you should absolutely quit at quitting time. "If your workday ends at 5 pm, shut off your devices and walk away from your workspace" or you might just keep working forever. When your home is your office you really never leave. Trent Hamm has similar advice: "If you are supposed to work from 9 to 5, then work from 9 to 5. Don’t start before 9 am, and don’t stop before 5 pm. Take the same breaks you’d take if you were in the office, including—and this is important—lunch! Regular hours increase productivity. I promise." Lindsey says, "I walk my dogs three times a day for breaks (long walk in morning, short lunch walk, then walk after 5pm)."

This is my biggest failing; I never stop, writing earlier that "I think I spend every waking hour either writing or reading about stuff to write about. It doesn't ever end. Lesson: Set work hours and stick to them."

Keep in touch. I couldn't survive without our virtual water cooler, our Skype chat that starts at 6 AM with a round of "Good morning!", sharing story ideas and baby pictures, and complaining about politics. Since we became part of Dotdash, I have been using Slack more, and they keep it very social; there are channels for announcements, celebrations, even a lost and found.

Keep It Healthy

bowl of healthy grain salad
©. Elena Veselova

It's very easy to raid the fridge or the cupboard. We don't keep snack stuff in the house, and Lindsey also says, "I don't keep fun snacks at my house because I will eat them all." Katherine, who has three kids and a house full of food, sticks to healthy stuff: "Almonds. Peanut/almond butter with apple or banana. Tortilla chips with hummus. Copious cups of tea." This seems to be standard Treehugger practice; Melissa reports, "Fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, cucumbers, pickles, whole wheat crackers. If there are cookies or chocolate in the house I will eat them all so I don’t keep them on hand! " Melissa also recently compiled the Pandemic pantry: a list for eating well with humble ingredients, a great list of healthy recipes so you eat well while hunkered in your bunker.

Buildups of chemicals and even CO2 can make you drowsy or cranky; open the window a lot, get out and breathe some fresh air. Do not bring strong chemical cleaners or air fresheners into the house. All kinds of studies have shown that you think better in a healthy house.

What Furniture and Equipment Do You Need?

Homemade Standing Desk

Michael Graham Richard

Do NOT run out and buy a cheap particleboard desk or chair from Staples or IKEA, and a pile of plastic office crap. You might well have a headache for a few days as all the volatile organic compounds off-gas. Take the time to figure things out before you make an investment. TreeHugger's Michael Graham Richard went for five months working on this standing desk made of Kleenex. Perhaps this is why so many people are hoarding toilet paper: to build desks out of it. Take the time to figure it out.

If you do need a desk, consider simple, inexpensive designs like Mike's pair of sawhorses and a slab of glass or wood. It works fine and it's easy to store when you don't need it anymore. Keep it light.

Keep It Simple and Don't Spend a Lot of Money

If you are going to be working from home permanently I would have different advice, but nobody knows what is going to be happening. So where Shelly Palmer says a solid broadband connection is a must—"the bigger the pipe, the easier and faster you can get stuff done"—it depends what the stuff you do actually is. I have a big fiber pipe at home, but work three months of the year from a cabin in the woods essentially tethered to a phone, and still get 54.3 meg downloading. It's asymmetrical and only 4.65 up, but photos for the web are not so big, and I have found it is just fine. Every year the data plans get cheaper.

Sidecar in action
My MacBook Air and iPad together at last.

Lloyd Alter

My Treehugger co-writers are happy to work away on their MacBook Airs all day, but I really like a dual monitor system so I can have the water cooler and Twitter open. I used to use Duet Display software to have my iPad as a second screen (Windows users can too), but now Sidecar is built in and it is brilliant.

There are also a million collaborative, messaging and workflow tools you can use to keep connected and keep track of everything; most people coming home from offices probably have a computer full of them. If not, read Shelly Palmer's post; I have never even heard of most of them.

For many people, this might be a difficult experience, especially when schools are closed and you are trying to work at home with kids underfoot; Katherine has some great tips here and says, "It's a chaos zone, but it is also a richly creative one." But for those who live in small urban apartments, this could be a nightmare. I in no way want to discount the hardship that many will suffer in these times.

But many might find, like I do, that working from home is exhilarating and more productive than commuting to work and sharing an office. I am not sure that I could ever go back to it, and hope that it turns out that way for the newbies.