By Roxanne Donovan - Organization; Wellness; Writing [Slightly edited version of post published on 8/6/20.]
If you’re working remotely this semester, I suspect you're experiencing a mix of gratitude, since it's an option many don't have, and apprehension. You’ve probably asked yourself some version of the question: How in the world am I going to get ANY work done in the middle of this dumpster fire of a semester?
Our forced work-from-home experiment of the last year has taught us a painful truth: it’s hard, really hard. Hard to stay focused on work, hard to manage Zoom fatigue, hard to get (and stay) organized, hard to set boundaries between work and life, hard to find connection.
And home-work (see what I did there) is exponentially harder for those with children who are learning from home either because their school district has gone 100% online, as with our son, or because you’ve opted for remote versus in-person learning when given the choice, as we did with our daughter.
But there is still time to set yourself up for success or at least survival. To help, here are six strategies for managing a remote semester without sacrificing your health or sanity, even in the current context.
1. Lower expectations of yourself (and others) like you’ve never lowered them before.
Seriously, whatever you think you’re capable of doing while working from home this semester, reduce it by 75% or even 90% if you must manage remote learning for your kids.
This strategy requires letting go of the idea that there is some formula that will enable you to simultaneously work more, sleep more, parent more, exercise more, care more, love more, connect more, do more, be more right now.
Too much of our emotional energy must go toward coping with the tremendous stress and fear and loss and pain the viral and racial syndemics are producing.
And please don’t point me to social media personalities who say they’re living their best lives right now and you can too. They’re probably selling you some bogus self-help thing or have ridiculous intersecting race, class, cis-hetero privilege that gives them access to said life possibilities or are in complete denial. Whatever the reason, ignore them at all costs. Better yet, preemptively block them out.
I’m not saying growth isn’t possible. I firmly believe in post-traumatic growth. But that comes after trauma, not when we’re knee deep in it.
2. Create a home workspace geared toward productivity and health.
Squeezing the most out of the limited hours you can work from home healthily requires a dedicated workspace where everything you need is setup and easy to find and where distraction is limited.
This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you the number of people I know who lose time reconstructing their office daily or managing continuous interruptions from others in their household because their “office” is their kitchen counter, dining room table, or living room couch. These places can suffice for occasional work tasks, but not for a months-long work-from-home future.
A dedicated home office with a desk, file cabinets, bookshelves, windows, and a door that locks from the inside is ideal. If that’s not in the cards, commandeer whatever space you can with some privacy and natural light.
If possible, situate your desk so you’re facing a window with a wall behind you. The natural light will help you look amazing on Zoom calls and can lower your stress and improve your mood, creativity, and sleep. The wall all ensures your webcam doesn’t pick up anyone wandering into your office space, including half-dressed spouses and curious toddlers.
Note: Finding a decent workspace is complicated if you, like me, have kids and a spouse who also need their own dedicated work areas. In such cases, prioritize your and your spouse’s needs then get creative about your kids’ needs.
I, for example, repurposed our barely used dining room into our daughter’s school area. The dining table is now her desk where she can spread out and the bench is now her “bookcase.” Not ideal, but better than having my spouse or me work at the dining table or having her work at the kitchen table where we have all our meals.
3. Set clear boundaries around when you work.
Home-work creates diffuseness between the professional and the personal which means you can easily find yourself working longer and longer hours to the detriment of your health and relationships. You know you’re in trouble when you’re working early in the morning, into the night, or through meals without planning to do so.
Setting a work schedule and sticking to it mitigates this work creep. Make sure to allot time for regular breaks to maximize focus and ward off fatigue.
As an extra layer of containment, commit to working only in your dedicated workspace. Beware, though, of smartphones and tablets that can keep you tethered to work even when not at your desk. Block all notifications or remove email apps altogether if managing these devices is a struggle.
4. Look up from your screen periodically.
Eye strain, neck/back pain, and headaches can arise from staring at a digital screen for long periods. Focusing on distant objects for at least 20 seconds at a time throughout the day can mitigate these problems. Timers that alert you to look up from your screen at least hourly are helpful.
5. Get the best tech and internet access you can afford.
Home-work can be frustrating enough in this context; don’t make it more so by using outdated equipment or slow internet if you have the means to upgrade.
I say this as a person who holds on to tech long after a replacement is warranted. But even I was moved to get a new computer after my 10-year old desktop proved unfit for my new work-home life. The final straw: not having enough hard drive space to download Zoom after deleting everything imaginable.
I’m still shocked at how much more productive and efficient I am now that I don’t have to wait endlessly for my computer to boot up or have to troubleshoot why it froze or randomly turned off again.
Same goes for the numerous benefits I’ve gotten from upgrading to super-fast internet with money saved from cutting the cable company cord.
6: Work in community with others.
The isolation inherent in home-work where social distancing is required has been especially challenging for many in our WellAcademic community. One way to buttress connection is through what I call socializing work communities. These are groups of colleagues or friends that meet via Zoom or some other videoconferencing platform to complete work and to connect socially.
The success of these communities hinges on having a set schedule (e.g., meet every Tuesday from 1-2 PM), regular attendees (three to six works well), an agreed-upon structure that includes at least 30 minutes of social time, and a shared purpose such as writing, grading, or course prep.
My writing group, which started post-shutdown, is a great example of a socializing work community. We meet via Zoom most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 AM to 2 PM. We catch up for about 30 minutes to start and then write in 30-minute blocks with breaks and check-ins disbursed throughout.
The care, compassionate accountability, and connection this group imbues has been critical to helping each participant find moments of joy and creativity in a time filled with its fair share of frustration and stress.
The group has been so meaningful to me that I created Focus Fridays in its image as an offering to WellAcademic members searching for their own socializing work community. I invite you to build your own community if you don’t have one already or join me for Focus Fridays.
Have other ways to get work done healthily from home this semester? Please post them in the comments below. We need to support each other now more than ever so we can all make it to the other side of this moment with some semblance of wholeness and health.
In peace and solidarity,
Roxanne A. Donovan, PhD, is co-founder and CEO of WellAcademic, a licensed psychologist in GA, and Professor of Psychological Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. She writes and teaches about health and wellness. For more reflections, follow Roxanne on Twitter or sign up for WellAcademic's newsletter.