Working at home and missing demarcation points


I could say that this is "Working from Home: Part 2", because this year I wrote a bit on this topic already, before the world went insane with pandemia. It could probably be Part 50 if I went back through all of my blogging archives from the past few decades. But Part 2 is easier.

So lots of people suddenly found themselves working from home this year, and there were a flood of online blog posts filled with supposed hacks to help you be more productive while your kid filled your toaster with toothpaste.

Because not only were you working from home instead of at the office, but you also had your kids home from school.

I'm not a parent. I can't speak to that experience. But I do know the difference between working in an office or other job, as well as working full time from home.

The two best and most common bits of advice would be to set a schedule and some goals.

You might use time blocking apps like Plan to schedule your day if that works for you. It requires discipline, but if you have a lot of varied projects and you don't want to fritter away your time on interruptions, it could work. I talked about this more in my first post. Schedule is important, and we'll allude to this in the rest of the post.

The next thing is the goal idea, which is important but can also be a trap if you aren't specific in how you define the goal.

Know what outcome you want at the end of a day/week. Review to see if you hit them or not. It helps you plan better next time so you don't over/under plan what you'll do with your time. If you're like me, you have some impostor syndrome at work and generally feel like all of your goals are never being met and everything is a fail, so that's why people will often say to set measurable goals: they can be measured (i.e. "I hit the deadline") so there's no internal argument.

So that's all lovely.

Of course, it doesn't address people who don't have white collar knowledge jobs who can't work from home. They just get fired or keep working or are forced to leave their kids home alone to figure out school and hope no one finds out and the kids don't get into any household poisons. It also doesn't address feeling some confusion in your identity because you're used to cues from others working around you to help you understand who you are and where you fit in.

And, for the point of this blog post, it doesn't address feeling a bit lost because the way you used to break up your day for sanity purposes, as well as measure how well you did work, are gone. Because you now don't leave your home. This is the one that gets me, even if my own version isn't based on comparing it to a regular office job that I am trying to replicate at home.

We all have demarcation points in our day.

Get up. Coffee. Shower. Get dressed. Drive to work. Boot up computer. Etc. One leads to the next. It's the unwritten structure that you build your day on. Those points are gone when you shift from office to home. Ask any retired person. Watch the movie About Schmidt. Demarcation points are crucial to how we understand our existence on a daily level, and beyond. It's how we work through time.

Kids listen for bells at school. Office workers keep their eye out for their lunch break. The day is marked off by the routine schedule. The day makes sense and you can use less thinking power to figure out what you'll do with the day because the schedule is already there. Your energy isn't spent on wondering what's next. 

Demarcation points do another important thing: they make compartments out of the day. Admittedly,  men are better able to do this than women, but compartmentalization can help keep your stress levels down.

So today, on my way home from a temporary gig where I spend the day with active little kids, I was in the bank drive-through depositing checks for a friend who's gone, I was on my phone talking to a client I book appointments for, and my phone was also dinging with notifications because I've been bombarded in the last few weeks from people I don't actually know sending me political posts and news articles and all kinds of things related to recent blog posts, messages full of calls to action and outrage and requests for help and recommendation. And in the midst of that, I was trying to figure out when I would deal with the overripe plums and other fall produce that had to be dealt with ASAP as well as cataloging how I'd arrange the next day's slate of client work for maximum productivity and wondering when I'd get my own project done, one that I'd been working on since March..

I could've used a bit of compartmentalization right there.

I kind of felt like my heart was about to explode, and I know that stress hormones are going to do more damage than any virus. I know I have to aware to not be fearful or anxious (It's almost as if the Bible was right, amirite?) because that's going to destroy my health.

So I started quoting memorized scripture and singing and taking slower breaths so I could make it home without spontaneous combustion. Once I got there, I laid down on the floor in the living room, closing my eyes and forcing myself to breathe slowly, hoping the 20 lb. lard cat wouldn't lay on me.

All I really wanted to do was rearrange my personal desk drawers to find the optimal placement of pens and pencils, putter around the house, tidy up the kitchen, or push some paint around a canvas. Things that had visible results but required no stress or intense thought or effort.

Freelancers, particularly those of us with an extremely varied spectrum of clients (paid by word, paid by hour, on retainer, paid by project, design, writing, website maintenance, virtual assistant, appointment booking, teaching, art) have to shift gears quickly and often, sometimes in the midst of work for other clients, and we know what that kind of gear-grinding does to the transmission of an old car.  

It's either drought (no clients and no income!) or deluge (all the clients and income!) and both come with their own stress.

There are few demarcation points for those working at home, but in particular, for freelancers. At any moment of any day, you can get emails and texts from clients with their next need on the calendar. While you're trying to fall asleep. While you're in the bathroom. When you're in the middle of a painting because you decided to block out a day to just turn your mind off and enjoy yourself. While you're reading a book. While you're trying to take a much-needed nap.

Compartmentalization and demarcation are really important.

I'll let you know when I achieve it.

In the meantime, you'll probably find me sprawled out on the floor trying to control my breathing yelling at a cat to get off of me.

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