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Mastering working from home

In many parts of the world, and certainly in Australia, thousands of people have been working from home for the first time – and it has presented a few challenges. This week, PENNY CURNOW looks at ways you can master working from home in a brain-friendly way that works for everyone.

Working from home has gone to a whole new level. The two lives we once keep relatively separate (work life/home life) have now been combined into a single setting.  We don’t have a manual for this. However, we do need to create a different way of balancing these two lives as the layers of complexity have deepened and are not the same for everyone.

This is a new “normal” but we don’t have a guide on how to create and manage this new normal.  Below, we are going to look at some brain-friendly strategies you can use. Some may or may not fit with your household. Consider it like a buffet at a restaurant.  There are so many options that we can choose from on that buffet but we are not going to eat everything off the buffet. Although many have tried, that doesn’t work out so well most of the time and leaves us bloated.  Generally, we will choose those foods that are our favourites. This is precisely what we are suggesting for you. Decide what fits and what could work for you in your new world of work/home life.

Does this sound familiar?

“I have a deadline due at 10 this morning, and I only have two hours to complete it.  I can’t get to it though as Jonny fell over and hurt his arm, the other two had a fight, and I had to break that up.  The bin is overflowing, and no one is taking it out The sink is full as no one thought to empty the dishwasher.”

All of a sudden, you become stressed and full of anxiety, exploding at everyone. The trouble is no one knew the kind of pressure that you were under because it hasn’t been communicated to the rest of the family. This has blurred a lot of lines in not only our communication it has blurred lines in the way we connect in our family and with our work colleagues.   We call this “blurring the boundaries” of our homes/inner sanctum with work.

Let’s unpack this so we can provide the buffet of brain-friendly strategies for you to choose from.

Work/life balance in one location

It is essential to have excellent communication with everyone in the family so you can understand each other’s perspectives and needs.  We are born to connect. Now many can do this in person if you are living with a family. But many people are on our own and can only connect through technology.  We will talk about this as well:

Family meeting:

It is a good idea to have a family meeting, our brain is a prediction machine and it is also looking for certainty.  If we are unsure about the boundary’s and we don’t know the rules then will make stuff up.

Some questions to think about:

When does family time start and when does work/school life begin?

What boundaries are we looking at implementing into this new way of working at home and how are we going to communicate them?

What are some of the non-negotiables around those boundaries?  I.e. When I am on a zoom/skype call I cant talk to you, if you want to ask something please write it down and when I get off the call I will look at it.  If it is urgent write it down and slip it to me or say excuse me I have to ask you something important.

What is each person’s expectations around their day?

What are the new habits that we want to create for this new normal to work?

Sit down with everyone in the family and scope this out, ask these questions and get agreement from everyone about what these new boundaries/habits are that we are working towards.

Perspective taking:

It is important to make sure that everyone in the family is heard.  Finding out what each person’s perspective is will assist everyone to appreciate the others’ points of view, even if they are little ones.  This includes what our needs are for school/work or playtime.

Family time and work time:

What time are we all going to agree on that everyone starts work/school? It would be good to have a start and finish time, so everyone is on the same page.

Communication:

Have a discussion with everyone and make it really clear who is talking. Is it Mum/Dad talking to me or is it the ‘work Mum/Dad’? An example is the scenario that was put to you earlier – I have a deadline and I can’t get to it because Johnny fell over, the kids are fighting and I lose the plot and ended screaming at everyone to be quiet.  All of a sudden, the anxiety and overwhelm shifts into your consciousness and this starts down a path that nobody wants to travel down.

This can be avoided if you we have really structured routine and a communal understanding of the boundaries and timelines.  Having a family meeting first-up, laying out the plan for the day will help, keeping in mind each person’s perspective as well as the deadlines that we are aiming to complete.

As part of this communication, tell each member of the family who is talking at the time. This might take some practice but it is wonderful as it defines the communication.  We use different hats as an example:  Right now I have my Work hat on, I have deadlines and I really need your help to make this happen.   Right now, I have my Mum/Dad hat on, please clear the dishwasher. This strategy is excellent, especially at the end of the day when we can say I am now taking my work hat off and putting my Mum/Dad/Wife/Husband hat on so that everyone knows when we are finishing work and when home life begins.

Priming/Visualisaton/Mindfulness:

Prime your brain for what is coming up for us that day, thinking about the tasks that we all have to do and discussing how we are going to do those tasks collaboratively.  Ask yourself as you get out of bed in the morning: What is my inner narrative? Is it something that is helpful or is it not-so-helpful?  An example of this is: “I can just imagine what this day is going to bring grrrrrrr.”  Or is it: “I wonder what opportunities and delights are going to emerge from today?”  Priming ourselves is really useful and is also very similar to being mindful.  Another question to ask yourself is: “Am I being mindful or is my mind full?  This can lead to overwhelm and anxiety if our mind is full.  If our mind is full, then think about some ways that you can get stuff out of your head and onto paper perhaps or have a discussion with someone.

Workspace:

The other thing that you can do is to be very clear about the workspace that you are going to occupy on each day.  Does everyone have their own work/school space at home, if so where is it and whose is it? Has everyone agreed to it?  Do we need to do a timetable for the day for those that have different tasks that need a certain space?

Deep Work:

The need to be able to have a time or times that are set out in your day for you to do that work that requires depth of thinking is really important and has to be communicated to all members so .  This means a time that you can carve out of your day where you are not interrupted. Things that you can do is perhaps find a place in your house where you can go to for no more than 90 minutes of complete uninterrupted work.  Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work. He suggests that deep work is to be conducted for no more than 90 minutes as you will experience cognitive overload or your brain just can handle any more and becomes fatigued.  When we do deep work we get into what is called “the flow”. If we are interrupted it can take up to 45 minutes to get that flow back.  When you want to do deep work, we need to create the right environment for that “flow” to take place.  This means turning off phones, email and internet pop-ups.

Attentional Intelligence/ Distractions:  Our brains are wired for novelty. Where is your attention placed?  Is it still on many tasks (not just your work tasks)?  A good idea is to make sure that we don’t have distractions. Some people prepare a Distraction Management Plan so they can have certainty they can do the work or take the call they need to with minimal distraction. This will be the same for those who have children doing their school work.  The brain likes things in little chunks so break down their day as well so they won’t get into being to cognitively fatigued. This is no different from making a cake or cooking dinner. We have to make sure we have all the ingredients right to make sure whatever it is that we are cooking turns out right.  If we haven’t planned for our work/home life, then the cake won’t turn out as we didn’t think through the ingredients.

Creating the right environment for a successful day:

Make sure that you get dressed for work and or school.  This is one of the biggest things that confuses our brain, if we stay in our PJs all day, then we are not priming ourselves and we are not creating good habits.  We need to get dressed and start work. When we finish work, we change into our comfy clothes.  This includes everyone in the household so we have really robust routines.  Even the foods that we are eating or making. Do the food prep on the weekends and set yourself up for success.

Being at home you will have conflicting tasks like, I will just run out and hang the washing out or I start prepping dinner. This is something that will blur the lines of the work/home boundaries.  Continue your work/home life just as you would if you went to work. Hang the washing out before work and bring it in after work.  An example of this would be:

Timetable

  • Wake up
  • Have family breakfast and wash up
  • Do household chores
  • Get dressed for work
  • Start work
  • Have agreed breaks so that you can all check in on each other’s day to measure how everyone is going
  • Finish work
  • Get changed into comfy clothes
  • Complete any family chores

2 Responses

  1. Thanks Penny
    This is a great article on being more purposeful during a time that can place us frazzle state. I particularly have got a lot of value from starting my morning with visualisation and brain mapping my day with positive intention. The allocation of deep work time has reduced the frustration of not getting my big important pieces done when i trying to ‘fit’ them in. Appreciate your insights.

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