When my boyfriend Jake encouraged me to quit my unsatisfying office job last summer to pursue my freelance writing career (hello, New York cliché!), I was excited and nervous. He’d also started working from home as a computer programmer, and our tiny one-bedroom apartment didn’t leave much breathing room. Having lived together for a few months already, I knew we were pretty good roommates, but without the structure and separation of our office jobs, I worried we’d tank our love boat in record time.
Discovering best practices in our quest to successfully work from home was a process of trial and error. Whether you’ve got a work-from-home partner, roommate, or a cat who just won’t leave you alone, here are seven simple suggestions to keep both the love and the productivity flowing.
First, a few things that definitely did not help, shared with the hope of helping you avoid my rookie mistakes and the petty fights that will inevitably ensue.
1. Don’t work in the same room.
Jake thought it’d be fun to build software that allowed him to control his computer like Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man." Jake named his custom-built assistant Jarvis, and all day long I’d hear voice commands like, “Jarvis, lick it,” and “Jarvis, stick it.” Jake’s desk did double-duty as our dresser, which was only three feet from my desk.
Even with headphones on, I could still hear Jake and Jarvis chatting all day long, and it was seriously distracting. I came to resent Jarvis and his witty responses (he was fond of calling Jake a genius and a wizard). Of all the potential things to ruin a relationship, don’t let a talking computer be one of them. If your place isn’t big enough to accommodate two office spaces, set up shop in a coffee shop with WiFi instead. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it can also prevent you from throwing someone else’s computer out the window.
2. Don’t judge their weird hours.
I try to keep my working hours mostly 10-6ish to give myself the illusion that I’m a normal person with a normal job. I also like to make plans with my non-freelance friends in the evenings. Jake, on the other hand, tends to get his strokes of brilliance after midnight. Remember when I said my desk was three feet from Jarvis? Well, it was also three feet from our bed.
If you disturb me while I’m sleeping, I’ll come at you like a grizzly bear, and I might not remember doing so the next morning. Turns out, hearing those voice commands all night was a wee bit disturbing. Instead of going for the jugular, why not try earplugs, or calmly ask your partner to work on the laptop in the other room instead? Half-awake arguments are never, ever productive.
3. Don’t nag each other about doing housework.
Sure, there’s a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and a mound of laundry in the hamper. But you know what? Suggesting the other person kindly tackle these chores right this very minute is neither convenient for them nor pivotal to mankind’s survival. It turns into the blame game, and no one wins the blame game. Instead, try scheduling 20-minute bursts of cleaning time. Tackling the chores together (with the ’90s Pop station blasting on Pandora, because obviously), it’s suddenly not so bad. No one should break up over dirty dishes. It doesn’t make for a good story.
So those are the no-no’s. As for what did work on our quest to live the freelance dream, I give you the game-changers:
4. Make your space conducive to working and living.
We kept trying to make the whole tiny apartment with its cheap rent and combo bedroom/dual office thing work, but it just wasn’t. Besides the two of us, we were also juggling our very curious puppy and an eccentric roommate, with whom we shared the kitchen and bathroom. Despite making the best of our small space, eventually the breaking point came in the form of small blue pellets.
The eccentric roommate? Well he decided to sprinkle rat poison on the kitchen floor, where our puppy was sure to feast on it like a rare delicacy. Rat poison is coated with molasses for tastiness, so you should never put it where pets or children can get it! (No, we didn’t have rats. Yes, the roommate was crazy.)
Believe me when I say that getting a puppy’s stomach pumped isn’t fun for anyone. Luckily we were home to catch Miyagi in the act, and he was no worse for the wear one stomach pump and one hour later (my wallet, on the other hand, was a few hundred dollars lighter).
But that wasn’t even the crazy part. After telling our roommate that he needed to put the kibosh on his extermination fetish, he did the exact same thing less than a month later, this time filling the cracks of our paved courtyard with the blue stuff. If there’s sniffing and digging involved, you can bet a dog will get to it. I had a distinct sense of déjà vu as we ran down the streets of Brooklyn, dog in arms, to have our mighty Shiba Inu’s stomach pumped yet again.
I started apartment hunting on Craigslist from the vet’s office that afternoon. Sure, you can learn to live with some annoyances if the rent is cheap, but your and your pets’ safety is not something you should ever sacrifice. I hope nothing so drastic makes you need to pack up and find a new place. But if you do need to move, think about what you need for your freelance lifestyle needs.
We needed more space and wanted to be near a park for our dog. Finding a great new place wasn’t as hard as we’d feared. In fact, we took the first place we saw (thank you NYC real estate gods!). Whether you need to find a new place or just want to make the best of what you’ve got, feeling safe and comfortable in your space should be the first order of business.
5. Get creative with your office space.
Contrary to popular freelancer stereotypes, you’re probably not going to do your best work in bed while surrounded by your laptop and your half-eaten lunch. Don’t burrow in a nest -- you’re not a squirrel, after all. Instead, separate your living space and your workspace as much as possible.
When we moved into our new apartment, I claimed a small windowed closet as my future office, and Jake helped me transform it into a great working space. Ikea is always a reliable source for office furniture on the cheap, but we managed to build a custom desk out of shelving and a shower rod salvaged from Brooklyn’s finest trash days.
If you’re not into the whole one woman’s trash is another’s treasure hunt, set up your space in a way that actually makes you want to spend time there. Making yourself a dedicated workspace as a freelancer also gives you permission to take yourself seriously. (But not too seriously. That would require an expensive ergonomic office chair and a much nicer desk).
6. Behold the magic of a curtain.
If you’re using a makeshift office sans door, consider the magic of a curtain to shield you from the world when you’re having Big Thoughts. It’s much nicer to close the curtain when you don’t want to be disturbed than to bite someone’s head off when you are inevitably disturbed (and by disturbed, I mean they may ask if you want to have lunch).
I found this colorful tapestry on Amazon for $28, and I love the way the light filters through the pattern as I work. Bookshelves and folding screens are also great ways to section off part of a larger room for your workspace.
7. Factor quality time into the equation.
I’m all about structure and routine. It’s my jam. Our dog also happens to be a fan of routine, and demands that I rise from bed at a decent hour to take him to off-leash hours at the park. Walking through the park with my coffee and puppy every day makes me realize how lucky I am: I’ve got a steady freelance gig that I enjoy, as well as the freedom to hang with my dog park friends while most New Yorkers are commuting to work on a packed subway.
More than anything I’ve learned from the past year of freelancing, planning quality time as part of my daily routine keeps me sane. I have my little rituals I like to do alone, whether it’s getting a manicure or going to Crossfit. Jake and I also have our things we do together, like playing Scrabble over lunch and kicking it in coed soccer leagues.
It sounds so obvious, but remember to do what you like to do with your partner. It’s easy to start taking your significant other for granted when you see them 24/7, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Leave the dishes for later and go do something that makes you smile.
How do you make working from home work for you? Is freelancing your dream or your nightmare?