Your home is a trap. There’s always something there to get you distracted. But if you also happen to be a perfectionist, then working from home is like being a fly inside a syrup can. A short walk from your desk to the coffee machine can be perilous journey through a minefield of misplaced items, stains that are begging to be wiped up, a family photo on the wall that has slid down into an unbearably asymmetric tilt, a laundry basket that is just one small notch too full… Not to mention what’s going on in your head.
Let me tell you about the five most vicious traps and what you can do to escape them.
1 The Multitasking Trap
You may have been thinking about a work task when you got up to get some coffee, but that line of thought has now been disrupted by you rearranging the collection of porcelain ducks your cat has brought havoc upon when establishing itself as the new self-proclaimed king of your coffee table.
There are studies that show that it takes 23 minutes on average to re-gain momentum once you have shifted focus from one task to another. If you allow yourself to correct every imperfection your eyes register during your workday, your work pace will be severely arrested, not to mention the time it will actually take away from your workday to handle that laundry, re-arrange those porcelain ducks, wipe out that stain etc.
Does this mean you should never make use of the additional opportunities working from home offers? Should you ignore everything that isn’t work?
Actually, there’s a way to get the best out of the two worlds. The one thing you should not do is multitask between work and housework.
But there are other studies that say that our productivity declines when we work on the same task for two long. It is often recommended that we take a 15 minute break once every hour and shift focus to something different, before getting back to work again.
This is your window of opportunity. Whenever you discover something that needs to be done about your house, just capture that thought in a list or a note, but don’t act on it.
When you’ve worked for 45 minutes and it’s time to take your 15 minute break – pull out that list and re-arrange those ducks or get that washing machine going. You’ll be giving your mind a break, making you more productive when you get back to work, and you’ll be getting some housework done at the same time.
Just keep those time slots clearly separate and don’t mix them up.
2 The Space Trap
Our memory is spacial. The way we memorise things is strongly conditioned by the environment we’re in when these thing occur. That goes as much for factual memory as it does for emotional associations.
We are conditioned to feel a certain way when we are at home, to think certain thoughts, do want to do certain things. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, for most of us these things had very little to do with work. But even though many of us have now gotten used to work being present in our homes, all the other stuff is still there too. And none of this stuff is generally designed to boost our work productivity. Rather the opposite.
Ideally, home should be a place of peace and harmony, something we associate with rest and the joys of family life. However little that does for your work productivity, you don’t really want to re-condition yourself to start thinking of your home as a place of stress, conference calls and deadlines.
That’s what makes the space trap. If two entirely opposite mental paradigms are trapped in the same space, they are likely to work against each other. The work doesn’t get done well and the rest isn’t truly pure.
If your home is the only space you have available to work, you can limit the damage by sacrificing a lamb to save the tribe. Define a sub-space inside your home which you can re-condition yourself into seeing as your workspace. If you have a room in your house you can assign as your office – that’s great. Determine that all work you do should only be done there, and no “private” activities should ever take place in that room. Let it be your work’s embassy inside your home.
If you don’t have the luxury of assigning a whole room – pick a space in your home and put a desk there. Only use that desk for work. Don’t use the kitchen table, the sofa or any other space for work that isn’t intended for it, even if it may feel more comfortable at times. By consistently re-conditioning yourself to do certain things in a dedicated space you will train your brain to better sustain concentration and ignore distractions from things that do not belong in your designated space.
3 The Availability Trap
Being home next to your family naturally makes you physically available to them. That means that things that they would normally have needed to remember to tell you when you’re back from work they can tell you at virtually any time. That goes for small talk, housework issues, holiday planning… You may decide not to engage in any such conversation during your workday, but you may find your inner perfectionist screaming in agony every time you happen to eavesdrop a piece of conversation, which reveals that your spouse isn’t following protocol when packing your kids for school or that your dog has been given silent permission to chew on the living room carpet.
Firstly, reaching an agreement with your family about treating you the same way when you’re in your workspace as if you were in your regular office. If you can get them to respect that – that’s a huge gain. Some even introduce indicator systems, like a sign on the door signalling availability.
Most importantly, resolve to not be available mentally when you are in your workspace. Come what may, you are not here. Whatever happens during this time would have happened (and has likely happened) in your physical absence anyway. You wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do anything about it then, so neither should you now. That’s your price for getting things done in your work. It may not feel like it, but this price is by no means higher than the price of being away in your office. The risk of your house burning down or your dog choking on a carpet is not higher just because you are around.
4 The Stealth Trap
You’re at home in your PJs, nobody sees you, nobody really knows what you’re doing… Is that good for your productivity? Of course it isn’t. Your space conditioning – that thing that sets your brain into work mode when you enter the office – works the same way in all aspects of your physical environment. That includes you. The way you look, what you wear and how you move affects the way you feel. Whether you have eyes on you or not affects your productivity too.
So dress for work every morning, even if you’re working from home. Fix your hair like you always do. Look sharp – and you’ll feel sharp. Keep your desk clean and never put anything that doesn’t relate to work there. You have no idea how big of a difference that can make for one’s productivity.
Sharing your working space with a working spouse can actually be useful too. You can be each other watchful eyes and help each other avoid procrastination.
5 The Overtime Trap
Finally, the worst trap of them all: the overtime trap. This one is a product of the other four. If you fall into any of the other four, which you will, each time it will build up your sense of guilt. You got caught in the Multitasking trap and spent a bit too much of your working day on laundry. You stumbled into the Availability trap and spent half an hour listening to you spouse contemplating about their career choice. You fell into the Space trap or the Stealth trap and spent too much time staring at your screen and not getting anywhere.
So now you feel guilty and try to compensate for that by working late. It’s easy to do when your workspace is only a stone’s throw from the kitchen table. You can always jump back into your private life when you’re needed. Knowing that doesn’t quite help you avoid all these traps the next day.
This can quickly create a vicious circle leading to exhaustion and, if not handled duly, to depression and burnout. The overtime trap laid when working from home is one thing that most effectively wipes out the boundaries between life and work, turning one’s life into a constant marathon of stress and guilt.
You avoid it best through awareness and determination. Understand that your brain will try to make you feel better about the time you have supposedly wasted by swapping you to work longer. Much like when addressing the sunk cost fallacy, the right way to go about this is to cut your losses early.
You’ve wasted some time. Well, that’s a shame. But, frankly speaking, did anyone ever doubt that might happen when people are forced to work from home? Any reasonable employer could see that coming. Every business has taken a hit from its employees being less productive when working from home. Let’s learn from this experience and try to not do it again. But it is not your sole responsibility to remedy any loss caused by a conscious business decision made by your employer.
Try to do your best under the current circumstances, but do not trade away your life every time it doesn’t work. If you are struggling to handle your workload due to circumstances you cannot control, then perhaps it is only reasonable that it is your workload that should be adjusted to the circumstances.
Nothing is ever going to be perfect. And that’s fine.