How To Work From Home Without Losing Your Sh*t

Working from home can be the easiest way to work. It can be the hardest. Sometimes it is both.

Currently I work from home, and it’s been more than four years since I’ve held a job with a physical office. I’ve spent several additional years of my life working from home. I’ve worked from home as an hourly consultant, contractor under lump sum, freelancer drumming up new business, half-time employee for someone else, full-time employee for someone else, and entrepreneur starting my own non-profit. During these years, I’ve had a boss, been my own boss, and been somebody’s boss. I’ve worked with fellow contractors with more authority. I’ve worked with employees inside the firm that hired me — and they had an office. I’ve held multiple contracts at once, multiple jobs at once, and held full-time, work-from-home-jobs while also attending full-time school in the evening. I’ve worked in someone else’s home, too. And, I’ve worked in several offices.

Frankly, I love working from home and don’t want to stop. But if I had an office tomorrow, I’d probably say I loved that and didn’t want to stop. There are positives and negatives for both working environments.

These are my best tips for working from home without losing your sh*t:

When you’re working, work. When you’re not working, don’t work. 
The most important thing to do is to compartmentalize. Think of work as an on/off light switch. Not a round dimmer that lets you explore gradations of work and home life happening at the same time, an on/off light switch. This approach protects both procrastinators who delay their work as well as workaholics who can’t stop working. Be deliberate about your boundaries, and when you’re at home, go all-in on your work or all-in on your personal life.

*Note – Others take vastly different approaches and find it works for them. With this tip as with the ones that follow, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

Keep a timesheet.
Whether or not you have billable hours to report or a mandatory company timesheet, track the amount of time you are working. Keeping a timesheet is the next step of compartmentalizing your activity. It acts as both a safeguard to keep you aware of when you are working and not working, and also as a way to hold you accountable to actually working or not working (some of us have problems actually getting to work, others of us have problems actually having a life).

Work in a dedicated space.
Having a dedicated space, even a $20 Ikea chair on the floor of your otherwise barren studio apartment (been there) is another mental kickstart to getting in the work mode. Do not conduct conference calls from bed. You will begin to associate your bed — which should be your most sacred space — with work annoyances that should have been absorbed by a cubicle with a carpeted wall.

Take a shower and get dressed.
I wear nicer clothes on my working-from-home days than my weekend days (let’s be real, we’re talking about slightly nicer T-shirts with the same jeans, sneakers, and hoodies). Get ready. Brush your teeth. When you feel professional, it helps you to act professional.

Get out to coffee shops on occasion, but not as an excuse to delay your work.
I used to put so much energy into working from coffee shops. I had a circuit of coffee shops I went to daily (seriously, they would have been so upset if they knew I had other steady coffee shops). It feels good to get out of your house and be around other people sometimes. It’s human nature. But if you think you need to go to a coffee shop or a library in order to be able to focus, something is wrong with the way you are approaching your work at home. When you’re working, you need to work.

Put more emphasis on professional development, including attending educational and networking events.
I tend to have more interest in professional development, including attending educational and networking events, when I’m working from home. Even when you work from home with other colleagues, it’s simply not as natural to develop, learn, and network as when you’re in an office. So — sign up for some professional events, and go. It feels good and keeps you relevant.

If you work from home and have children, don’t pretend you can do both without childcare.
These days, one of the sweetest comments I get when people find out I have a child and work from home is the assumption that I can, oh, do both. Unless you’re working part-time and don’t have to be on a specific schedule or you can’t afford or secure childcare and are forced to never sleep yourself, you can’t. It is simply not sustainable to work from home and take care of young kids at the same time.  I’ve worked from home with a nanny who came to us (best advice I have is to stay out of it, let the nanny take leadership, and act like you aren’t there) and these days our daughter goes to full-time daycare outside the home.

Take extra steps to be personal with your colleagues.
Just as small talk is just about the weather but profoundly important to a person’s ability to ramp into a focused conversation with someone they don’t know well already, so is bullshit time. Bullshit time is the time you spend in an office standing around a copier that can’t be fixed even though everyone has tried what the monitor says. During bullshit time you find out who people really are, and this develops trust and impacts our ability to communicate honestly with one another, and give and receive feedback. Sending a handwritten card in the mail to someone you work with virtually takes 10 minutes but makes you remarkable. Build in time to care about someone’s weekend or sick kid. No one is just a cog behind a screen.

Don’t construct a narrative about what your boss or client is thinking.
You ever watched a friend project the universe onto someone hot they found online? (Okay, I’ll woman up and confess to doing that myself.) Our brains are wired to fill in the gaps for others — undeservedly positive or negative. We can over-inflate how wonderful someone blah is, or construct a really hostile narrative against ourselves (like, literally, I have convinced myself that a previous boss who is in fact one of my greatest champions hated everything I did and was going to fire me). When you’re working from home, you’re missing body language, contact, and context that helps you to understand better what your boss or client really thinks. Get out of your head. Don’t think and theorize, talk. The exception is that if someone proves to you in a virtual space that they are toxic — as with real life — find a way to get the hell away from them, and never look back.

Most important: If you don’t love your job, don’t work from home. You will fail.
Almost all the problems of working from home really stem from not believing in what you do. If you think your job sucks, is boring, evil, under the direction of evil people, or you’re in a dead end, you won’t be motivated to work. In those instances, be honest with yourself and get out. I say this with the acknowledgement that it’s a great privilege to quit your job because it’s stupid, and one that most people can’t swing. But that doesn’t mean that if you hate working from home you should be reading tips on how to correct the situation. Just start looking for another job. Your problem might be working from home, but it’s more likely your job being the wrong fit.

300px-workathomead 

Holding A Baby And An iPhone

I live-tweeted labor. The first night of my daughter’s life I realized I was going to be nursing for long stretches overnight; I began using my phone to stay awake. Every night I spent hours nursing her quietly, listening to her sweet little swallows, and surfing the Internet like it was the best Gidget movie in the world. I developed eye strain, and my carpal tunnel flared up again.

Eventually maternity leave was over. I held a different job then, one I loved, but I was also a rare part-time employee on a staff of full-timers. That meant checking in on email all the time anyway, so I wouldn’t fall behind.

Work-life balance is this elusive thing. It’s a psychic pair of skinny jeans, designed to punish. Work-life balance is not a gender-neutral phrase. Work-life balance may as well be Morse code for throwing women to the wolves. We are expected to take care of our families, make nice food that looks like it belongs on Instagram, and shatter glass ceilings through perseverance and sheer will. (Friendly reminder: There are no personal solutions to societal problems.)

Generally I suck at work/life balance, as do a good portion of the people I know, because we are expected to work all the time and we have the Internet with us almost everywhere we go.

And yet I’m not complaining: I’m fortunate that my line of work so happens to be my life passion. Still, if work/life balance means having two separate spheres of life that are both well-tended, nope, I don’t have that.

I’m the woman who is opening up Slack for conversations with a colleague while my daughter eats in a high chair next to me. You can catch me firing off work emails at the playground. And I’m ashamed by how often I look at Facebook when she is in my care.

My daughter has taught me a love of presence. We should listen to crickets and wonder what they are. An airplane overhead is worth pointing to and talking about. Silence is a lavish gift — seriously, take it when you can get it.

It is hard for me to reconcile my actual and/or perceived need to be always available online with being the attentive mother I want to be. And yet, I am terrifically proud to be a working mother, and I claim that title. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to realize that the woman suffrage poster in her bedroom is not just wall art, and that her mom is a troublemaker.

Ultimately, I am doing both. Sometimes I hold my daughter and write emails. Sometimes I push the stroller and go on Twitter rants.  I am a parent and a working feminist at the same time.

A Younger Feminist’s Reflection on The Feminine Mystique

“The only way for a woman, or a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.” – Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan photo

It’s been fifty years since Betty Friedan wrote the The Feminine Mystique. How much has changed. How much remains the same.

Sexism is as foundational to society as it was during the Mad Men era that drove Betty Draper and Betty Friedan mad, if you ask me. The major difference is that people don’t smoke inside, and like colors and hemlines and shag carpets, oh the styles of expression are different.

For-men-only employment ads have jumped over to the lifestyle section of the newspaper, where you see presumed for-women-only feature articles about that ever-elusive “work/life balance.”

(Put no paid parenting leave; no childcare support; and no legal guarantee that you won’t get fired for asking what your coworkers are getting paid on a see-saw: Somehow it always seems to be the women dragged to the ground while men sit on top of Fortune 500 companies, law partnerships, and corporate boards almost totally by themselves. Most “work/life balance” experts say a super pink, super non-structural self-help approach will solve it, no government required! What a sexist joke.)

Only yesterday The New York Times published a column about “pro-life feminism,” in which a man sympathetic to the anti-human rights movement bringing you comparisons of pregnant women to farm animals, bills suggesting that women raped who have abortions be prosecuted for “tampering with evidence” and men-only congressional panels comparing the availability of birth control to choosing a place to go for lunch – a man sympathetic to all of that suggested that feminism be reformed. I beg your pardon.

But of course, the world has changed drastically since The Feminine Mystique, just look! Last week they said women would no longer be barred from combat, and daughters expect equality as do sons. Living up to the expectation of equality, and securing justice for those many experiences outside the realm of wealthy white men, has proved to be the continuing problem for the women’s movement to tackle.

Betty Friedan and her book, to say nothing of the first organization she founded, the National Organization for Women, have had outsize impact on my life as a feminist organizer.

I never knew Friedan personally, saw her across a room at a conference when I was an intern, and, you know, by then the women’s movement was so professionalized interns paid money in the form of tuition to get course credit for working free at the registration table.

When she died on a weekend in February 2006, I was in the National Organization for Women office chairing a meeting of the Young Feminist Task Force. I remember leading a moment of silence and thinking to myself what a profound responsibility I was accepting then, right then, to take the leadership required to help move feminism forward in a new way. I have never lost that feeling.

A few months ago, I decided taking meaningful leadership – contributing the most I have to give – meant leaving a big title in the big organization Friedan started. One of the key factors in my decision was realizing how many people, especially young people, were looking to me as an example of what was possible both in society and for their own lives. Believing in you, as I do, ultimately meant demonstrating I believe in myself and our power to create a better world.

I believe it is within our power to end sexism. I also believe getting there requires taking personal, interpersonal and structural risks. It requires acknowledging uncomfortable truths and working to change them. I believe younger people should define feminism for themselves and help lead the way forward. And while I am profoundly grateful for feminism and feminists of the past, I couldn’t be prouder to set this example. This is not an end. I am only getting started.

What would Friedan say about this? Honestly, I have no idea. As for me, I continue to take considerable inspiration from her legacy and The Feminine Mystique.

Gail Collins, a feminist of a different generation than myself, wrote a beautiful piece on ‘The Feminine Mystique’ at 50. In it, she pointed out more often the book is commented on for what it left out (basically anyone who wasn’t an upper middle class heterosexual white woman), rather than what it was (a piercingly accurate description of the waste of women like Betty).

Strangely enough, the waves of reaction in feminist thought went a bit too far in the other direction, in my opinion, when it became imperative for the incarnation of the women’s movement that followed The Feminine Mystique to speak declaratively “for all women” as if that was somehow possible to do really well. In my experience, people can speak profoundly well for themselves, and do both themselves and others a disservice when they try to speak for everyone else at the same time.

You cannot homogenize diversity, nor is it wise to try. It is the diversity that is the strength. It is the diversity that is the beautiful part. In encouraging diverse people to speak and lead for themselves (and having others listen and add their experience, not to change what the speaker said, but to speak and lead for themselves in the pursuit of an equality to be achievable in common by all) we can move the needle closer to justice. Modern feminism is already doing this all over the Internet. This is my experience and I deserve to be heard. That is your experience and you deserve to be heard. I know we can do better. We can be more than this. Let’s take a risk and organize something totally new and spectacular. It is very exciting, and dare I argue, a very inclusive expression of what Betty Friedan could have helped to kick off had her slice of reality, The Feminine Mystique, been published today.