by Helen Kenwright
Many writers are already experienced home workers, whether novelists, agency writers or freelancers. Writing doesn’t pay much (if anything) so office premises are but a distant dream for most of us. Or even, a nightmare. A lot of us actively enjoy working in our own space, safely separated from the rest of humanity.
So we are ideally placed, not only to survive the current crisis without a sense of major change (except for the toilet roll shortages; I’m afraid I have no clue how to solve that one) – but to thrive in glorious isolation. We can hand on our wisdom to all those workers who find themselves with a work laptop perched on the edge of their kitchen table, wondering how Jane from accounts is coping and planning how to cover up the unfortunately yellowed wallpaper (with the ketchup stain on it) before it features as a backdrop for their next conference call on Zoom.
It’s also a good opportunity to check in on ourselves and our own working practices. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to make sure that when lockdown is over, our doors open and we emerge, blinking into the sunlight, we are in good shape to handle the brave new world awaiting us.
So read on for some tips on how to have a healthy working life at home, whether you’re a writer or Jane from accounts, who’s trying to manage a spreadsheet on one screen and homeschool her children on the iPad.
Many writers have Sheds. Roald Dahl was famous for it. Sheds have many advantages, chief of which is a controlled proximity to other people; not just geographically or as social distancing, but by emitting an ethereal sense of unavailability. Nothing says ‘do not disturb’ like a shed. Whether the occupant is raising ferrets, renovating old sideboards or writing, it’s generally understood that The Shed is sacred and they are to be left alone.
There’s also different standards in a shed. Extensive hoovering is less frequently required. Homely wall hangings and handy hooks are perfectly acceptable decor, and furnishings are selected for comfort and practicality, not for impressing visitors or accommodating occasional guests, or blending perfectly with the rest of the living room/study/kitchen.
So, if you have a shed of any kind, move into it. Take a thermos flask, your favourite mug, that ridiculously comfy jumper that nobody else likes, and get to work. You may or may not wish to occasionally ‘forget’ your work mobile and leave it on silent in your sock drawer.
If you don’t have an actual shed or similar outbuilding you can use, you’ll need to look carefully at your house. Note that a shed is actually favourable to a spare room. ‘Spare’ rooms can all too quickly become ‘shared offices’ or ‘storage areas’, and if you’re going to be working from home for a while, you need to claim your territory. So when you move into the ‘spare’ room, make yourself a big ‘enter at your peril’ sign, and design a range of punishments for anyone who ignores it.
Some of us are denied the luxury of a shed or a spare room. We have to perch where we can, and be ready to move at a moment’s notice if someone else can prove a greater need.
Hopefully you have a table, or at least a bit of a table, or a timeshare on a bit of a table. Again, protect this space! Make it clear what you’re doing there, while it’s yours. In fact, that goes for virtual spaces, too. Try these ideas for size:
- Keep a tablecloth that you only put on the table when you’re working at it.
- Have a different desktop on your computer when you’re working. (Bonus points if it matches your table cloth.)
- Keep your work stuff in a robust box that you can pop on a chair and keep next to you while you’re working, rather than always spreading stuff out on the table, only having to clear it off again because the kids need the space to colour in their shadow drawings.
- Surround yourself with inspiring objects. (Popular with writers are: shells, feathers, small rocks, bottle tops, till receipts, old train tickets, clippings from newspapers about gruesome murders, and weird postcards from junk shops. This is advanced desk-management. You might like to stick to a nice pot plant and a saucer of paper clips until you get the hang of it.)
For years you sat next to Trevor in your company office, and every day you prayed to your deity of choice that he would a) stop leaving his half-empty coffee mug to grow interesting new life forms over the weekend; b) stop making that weird whistling noise while he was writing emails; c) change his bloody aftershave, and d) talk about anything other than last night’s episode of Casualty or his obsession with old bottle tops and train tickets.
Congratulations. Apart from a few WhatsApp messages about egg shortages you don’t have to deal with Trevor for a while.
But chances are you will have new co-workers, and after a few weeks you may well find yourself thinking fondly of the old days with Trev and his Mug Mould.
These co-workers could be your family, your room-mates, your pets, a pot plant or the radio. Whoever they are, they will somehow find a way to interrupt video conferences, delete the spreadsheet you spent hours working on, or spill juice on your keyboard.
Unlike Trevor, you can’t just go home and moan about them.
So, put a few strategies in place:
Be conscious about work time vs other time, and make sure everyone knows when you’re working. Make rules: no juice, save your work automatically to a back-up mechanism, put a sign on the door when you’re video conferencing, and above all, remember that any time your loved ones are around you while you’re working isn’t the same as spending quality time with them.
Make sure you leave some hours in the day for doing fun things together. Then you’ll find it a lot less frustrating when they knock over your bottle-top model of Trevor while reaching for the glue.
Keep notes. Don’t rely on your mind to remember things in this new, chaotic word. Get a notebook or a pad of post-its and write down all your thoughts, ideas, observations and jokes that come to you. Writers swear by this, because you can guarantee that the best ideas come when you are either in the shower, washing up or doing something complicated with glue and/or other people.
If it’s at all possible, buy a shed from a reputable online retailer.
Some of us writers aren’t too keen on communications of the everyday kind. We prefer to put it All Into Our Work, appearing, blinking, from our caves only to deliver manuscripts and negotiate awkward book launch receptions.
But this is a bit of a failing on our part. Communication is important. Even more so when we’re in any way isolated, and there’s a lot of that going on right now. So, make sure you Skype, phone, text, Zoom or whatever you like to do. Try and see peoples’ faces. Hear voices.
And then, when you’re done, stop.
I am an introvert. I like people – I’m a sociologist and a writer, I’d be lost without them – but they cost me energy. Extroverts, on the other hand, are energised by being in the company of others. When isolation started, it suddenly became very apparent whom of my acquaintance fell into which camp. The extroverts were immediately anxious, tired and frustrated, while us introverts flopped onto our respective sofas with a sigh of relief. As we’ve settled into the new way of things, we’ve mostly reached a compromise, as people tend to do. But there were some pitfalls along the way. We all found online ways to communicate (the introverts tend to have this down to a fine art already), but the extroverts did it a lot. Suddenly everyone wanted to FaceTime or WhatsApp about everything. All the time. Our splendid isolation felt oddly invaded.
Thankfully it’s evened out over time, as introverts’ phone batteries mysteriously died, and extroverts found that they could also video-chat with the people they usually went to the pub with.
The point of this is that you need to find out what you need from communication with others, and what they need from you. Then make sure you fit it healthily into your day, just like you used to. Just because your computer is always in your room doesn’t mean Jane from Accounts has to be. And definitely not Trevor.
Psychologists tell us that routine is very important for our wellbeing, and most writers would agree. Whenever you read those ‘day in the life’ interviews, writers always seem to say things like ‘Well, Jennifer, I start my day with a breakfast of blueberries and spelt bread, then I walk the dogs for several hours. After a warm aubergine and avocado salad on sourdough, I write all afternoon.’ Or, ‘I write from 2am until the break of dawn and then get the kids to school before lying in a stupor until lunchtime’. Some writers are forced into a routine – they can only get peace, quiet and a slot on the kitchen table rota when everyone else has gone to bed, or they only get time to write when they’re commuting to and from work. If writers give up work to ‘write full time’, many quickly find the days too long, the time too amorphous and overwhelming, and start to fill it with ironing or making chains out of paper clips, or writing blog posts about writers’ block. Eventually, the successful ones will find a routine that works for them, and writing begins to flow.
There are good reasons for this. Human brains have their own rhythms, and we can tap into them – and train them – to make the best use of our most creative times. It’s good for wellbeing, too. Patterns reassure us as human beings. Our bodies like regular mealtimes, exercise times and bedtimes.
For many of us those routines are shaped or even dictated by the world around us: our workplace, schools, family activities. And at times like this, when everything’s stripped away, it’s tempting to go feral, and do what you want, when you want, like some kind of a home-alone thirteen year old.
And maybe that’s what you need to get over the shock of life changing quite so much, quite so quickly. But it can be very disorientating and upsetting in the long term. The great thing about having fewer external restrictions, though, is that you can find your own natural rhythms. Experiment. Observe your daily flow of energy, creativity and focus. Then build your routine around it.
Oh, and make sure you eat, exercise and relax regularly. We all need to keep healthy.
As healthy as routine is, one thing that is not good for writers is ruts. Ruts happen when routines go bad. Writers are creators, innovators and inventors. We need inspiration. And (controversially) I suggest that we can’t always get that from inside our own sheds. At some point we will need to venture forth and find new till receipts, new weird postcards, new whatever-it-is that inspires us.
Few of us at the moment are in the rut we may have been in at the beginning of 2020. Everything is different. A lot of it’s scary. Sad. Difficult. But there are also opportunities. People are thinking differently. Doing things differently. As our shook-up little snow globe settles, the flakes won’t go back to the same old places. This is a huge opportunity to try new approaches, think new ways, do new things. There’s a lot of creativity around. Let it nourish you and open up new doors (for when we’re allowed to go through them).
Working from home may be a matter of making the best of a difficult situation, or it could be a revolutionary experience that changes your whole life and attitude, but however it goes for you I hope these tips help you make it as productive as possible, and that you find a shed that works for you.
Stay safe, and happy working!