When I first started working from home full-time last September, I was a little wary of the prospect. Not because I thought I would lack the discipline to get stuff done, and not because I was worried about too many “distractions." In March of that year I’d finished writing a (way lengthier than the finished product) draft of a whole book in my so-called free time, and I’d done it mostly by coming home from my paying-the-bills office job and then proceeding to work until 10 or 11 each night.
I did this without a dedicated home office, even. But when I got this gig, I thought I deserved a proper setup, some kind of dedicated space where I would “go to work” every day. Most of the conventional wisdom I read during my preparations was emphatic on the point that working from home should happen in a space used only for work, and ideally which has a door you can close to keep it separate from the rest of your life.
This never actually worked out for me. From day one I was using my tastefully-appointed IKEA-furnished Etsy-decorated workspace for non-work stuff, like watching kitten videos on YouTube and shopping for amazing dresses, and even on the weekends. I LIKE my workspace -- it’s cozy and cheery and comfortable -- and it seemed a shame to waste all that only on working.
Most of what I’d planned for my new employment was based on this oft-repeated idea that working from home requires one to be extra vigilant about delineating that work/life boundary. Work is work! Life is life! Like matter and anti-matter, mixing them is a bad idea! I was going to be EXTRA DISCIPLINED, and compartmentalize my life like the Vic Mackey of ladymedia. Only with less murder and thieving.
But I failed. Repeatedly. (At the compartmentalizing, not the murder and thieving, which I didn’t actually try.)
I don’t do well with enforced downtime. As a writer, at any given moment, whether I am on vacation or having a pelvic exam or out to dinner with my husband, I am always thinking about stuff I can write about. It’s compulsive, and distracting, and it makes me zero fun in social situations sometimes. But living this way is the only means by which I’ve attained anything approaching success. It doesn’t bother me, really -- I don’t resent it, because it’s just how I am.
Trying to suppress that urge -- I won’t call myself a workaholic, although my husband probably would -- was doing me more harm than good.
Eventually it occurred to me that there might not be one right way of working from home. And that maybe I’ve been doing it wrong.
Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek covered a survey about what remote employees really do all day. The responses were surprisingly candid:
43 percent watch TV or a movie and 20 percent play video games while officially working from home. Parents are more likely than those without children to partake in these two activities, which aren’t work-related.
Employees might not even be sober: 24 percent admit to having a drink. Twenty-six percent say they take naps. Others are distracted by housekeeping: 35 percent do household chores; 28 percent cook dinner.
First, who else noticed the conspicuous absence of any statistics about masturbation?
I can honestly say I’ve never had a drink while working, although that’s mostly because I don’t really drink much (witness the eight bottles of beer and one bottle of wine still hanging out in my fridge, leftover from last Thanksgiving). I don’t watch TV either. Well, sometimes I’ll put something on while I eat lunch -- on the rare occasions that I remember to eat lunch before 5 o’clock -- but generally that’s a no. I have taken naps during the day once in awhile, but only when I really wasn’t feeling well.
And I can assure all of you I have never been “distracted by housekeeping” in my life.
But CONFESSION TIME: I have TOTALLY played video games, quietly, during staff meetings.
I get really bored, you guys, and that’s not a condemnation of the xoJane staff meetings, which are far more entertaining than most. The problem is that I have to call in for them via conference call, and my attention is best kept visually, which means I spend most meetings in furious attempts to imagine what the meeting looks like in order to prevent myself totally spacing and getting lost in my own thoughts.
In my defense, I turned to video games because for awhile there I would try to work during the meetings, but too often that meant I would zone out and lose the thread of what was being discussed. However, it turns out I am totally capable of both playing Minecraft (or Skyrim or whatever) and paying attention to the meeting at the same time. SERENDIPITY.
There’s good news, though! According to another survey in the Businessweek article, despite their chronic slacking off, remote workers are actually MORE productive than their in-office peers.
Jack M. Nilles, founder of management consulting firm, JALA International, says in an e-mail, “If an employee is doing the work and producing the desired results, what difference does it make if he/she includes a nap or cooking or a school play in the so-called work day?” He adds: “The whole point of teleworking, from the employee’s point of view, is the ability to fit one’s work into the rest of one’s life, not the other way around, as is the case in the ‘traditional’ office. The point of teleworking, from the employer’s point of view, is that its bottom-line benefits (productivity gains, space savings, employee retention, etc.) far exceed any feared risks of losses.”
For me, my work/life balance was improved by doing exactly what everyone tells you not to do. I began ignoring that imaginary boundary I’d set up and letting all the parts of what I do every day intermingle. If I feel like writing something at 11pm on a Tuesday night, I allow myself to do it. If I feel like I want a half-hour video game break at two in the afternoon (and I have nothing pressing me to stay at my laptop), I take one. These concessions have indeed served to make me more productive, not less, and have also made me happier and less stressed, which is the opposite of what the warnings tell you.
For someone so invested in boundaries, I’m becoming more at ease with letting my life be more fluid. Some may argue that this evolution of work -- enabled by the proliferation of portable technology -- is simply going to translate to longer hours and less compensation. That’s definitely something to be on guard for, as even casually expanding our work beyond the 9 to 5 is bound to creep into our focus when spending time with family or friends, and may result in employers expecting longer hours and constant availability, which in many fields and for many individuals is simply not acceptable.
But in my case, I’m done fighting it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I understand there is a dragon that needs killing away from my desk.