With students, faculty, and staff all switching to work from home, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences on what it was like to do the majority of my Ph.D. remotely.
I live three hours from my university, so I have been working from home for the better part of three years now. In fact, I only spent two semesters on campus in my first year taking classes. Then I spent a couple of semesters abroad running an experiment at Bodega Marine Lab. Since then, other than a few short field trips, I’ve been working from my two-bedroom apartment in rural Alberta, Canada. Below are a few of the things I’ve learned working from home.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind when reading any of these sorts of posts is that everyone is different, and what worked for me might not work for you.
Keep Your Space Clean
I am a very tidy person, and if I know I have chores to do, or things are messy, I have trouble working without feeling distracted. If mess doesn’t bother you, great. I envy you. But if you’re like me and have a tendency to “procrasti-clean”, I recommend keeping on top of your chores and cleaning so as to avoid the temptation/distraction of cleaning. I typically either end or start my workday by cleaning. Not doing a full clean, but just doing one task a day, like vacuuming a bedroom, cleaning the kitchen, doing a load of laundry, or cleaning the bathroom counter, and cycling through them regularly. Spending that 5 – 15 minutes a day keeps everything clean, so I have no excuse not to focus on work.
Your Work Space
This is one area where I feel like my advice might be different. I’ve never really created a work space for myself. My work space has just depended on my tasks. We have a desk and office chair set up in each of our two bedrooms, and while I often worked in the more “office-like” one, I was just as content to work from the kitchen table, couch, or even one of the beds. This was partially because my cat, who loved to hang out with me in the “office”, died unexpectedly and I found it painful to work in that space without him. But I also like the variety. I have sciatica, so switching up how I’m sitting is helpful. I also live in Canada where the days in the winter are very short, so I move with the sun to the place with the best lighting.
So, while having a dedicated office space might work for some, don’t feel bad if you like moving around. Taking advantage of sunlight and soaking up those rays (or avoiding glare) will mentally help your workflow. If you have to work around a partner or roommate (my husband has currently taken over the “office”), work together and communicate your needs clearly so that you can make a plan that is fair to everyone. If you can’t move around, have things that make you happy and calm within eyesight. For me, this is the plants and bird feeders outside our windows.
Invest in a Whiteboard
I purchased a large whiteboard (~2 x 3 feet) when I started writing my dissertation, and my only regret was that I didn’t do it sooner! I also invested in a bunch of colored whiteboard markers because color coding helps me organize my thoughts. I like to think of my whiteboard as my rough notebook/sketchpad. The ability to jot down ideas or diagrams, and easily erase or modify them is so helpful. Sometimes if I am struggling with an idea, I’ll write it out again and again, erasing or modifying as necessary. Once I have it the way I want it, I’ll either write it down in my notebook, type it into a word document, or make the figure on my computer. We get so used to having access to whiteboards at a university that this was one tool I couldn’t live without.
Making a “Plan”
I use the word “plan” loosely here, because no matter what plan or tasks you set out for yourself, it’s hard to stick to those goals exactly, so flexibility here is key. Working from home is tough, and not everything will go perfectly, even for someone seasoned like myself. Mentally, not beating yourself up if everything doesn’t go how you expect is important for your productivity. Not every day will be great. But by trying to keep some of your same organizational tools, this will help you feel more normal and productive, especially in a work space that is also your home. Again, this is one of the reasons I love my whiteboard. If I have to change the plan, it’s super easy to do so, and there’s no “evidence” of the change (unlike if you wrote something down with a pen).
Write out everything you need to get done, and organize it how you see fit. I color code tasks and sort them by day of the week. I usually have fewer and fewer tasks towards the end of the week because I know stuff from the previous days with inevitably trickle over. I also tend to repeat tasks several days in a row in case I don’t get to them on one day, or they take longer than I expect. Google Calendar is another friend. If you have other organizational tools you use, keep implementing them. Having structure (but one that allows some flexibility) is really important.
Creating a “Routine”
Again, try to be flexible here because some days are going to be harder than others. But if you can keep your regular routine going, that should help. For me, it’s setting an alarm and having breakfast and coffee with my husband. He likes to watch the news, but sometimes this stresses me out, so if I know I’m not feeling the news that day, I’ll go do something else, like clean, or play with the cat. Once the breakfast dishes are done, it’s time to work!
I like to start out the day by making a “to do” list on my whiteboard, and I will prioritize those tasks. I will then always try to make myself do the most difficult task first because if I can accomplish that, it will energize me for the rest of the day because at least I did something productive! For most of us, that task is probably writing. I’ve noticed that the days where I’ve been most productive are the days where I’ve started out with an hour or two of writing and reading articles in the morning. Even if I only manage to get a paragraph written, I will be more productive with other tasks if I know I got something on the page. Forcing yourself to write daily will also help the task of manuscript/thesis/dissertation writing seem much more manageable. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “bad”, getting it on the page is the hardest part.
Taking regular breaks is also important. For me, I’ll work for a couple of hours, then play with my cat for a bit, work some more, and then make lunch. I like to have a hot shower as my mid-day break because 1) pajamas and housecoats in the morning are awesome, 2) I need to stop and stretch my legs to avoid sciatic issues, and 3) I usually have an idea I need to mull over by mid-day, and thinking about it in the shower/tub is helpful. Then I will work again for a couple of hours, take another break to play with the cat, and then keep working. Because I live in Canada, I didn’t really feel like going outside for walks most days during the dead of winter, but now that it is “nicer” outside (not -20º C), I will usually go for a walk in the afternoon. I also have a bike trainer that I try to use, but I will admit that when I was deep into my dissertation-writing stages, I didn’t use it as much as I should have. If you have an activity tracker, these are helpful in maintaining an active routine. I wish I’d invested in one sooner. But the important thing is to not beat yourself up if you can’t keep up with a physical routine every day.
One other thing I’ll say about routines is that having something to take care of is really helpful. Even if it is just a houseplant or a bird feeder, having some sense of responsibility to take care of something will help. For me, it’s a cat and plants. Pets will have routines that you might be forced to follow, whether it’s taking them for walks, or just feeding and cleaning up after them. When our cat died unexpectedly, working from home suddenly became a lot harder, so my sister bought me a bunch of plants and that helped. I also make a patio garden in the summer. My husband eventually convinced me to get another cat, and while I was very resistant, I’m glad we did it. She’s very active, so we have to play with her for at least a half hour every night before bed, or she’ll keep us up. She also has natural rhythms that start to shape your day.
Put Distractions Away
This is an obvious one, but easier said than done. For me, it’s my phone and email. I try to check my email only once an hour, and will leave my phone in a different room. If TV becomes a temptation, I will go and work in a different room away from the TV. Food is another easy distraction. I try to have set meals and snack breaks. I allow myself breakfast, lunch, and two snack breaks during the day. I can take these whenever I want, but I normally only get two. I try to drink lots of water, coffee, and tea throughout the day instead. I can take as many water or tea breaks as I want. If I’m having a stressful or long day, I will add a third snack break in too. I try not to be too hard on myself – writing requires fuel! Planning out groceries, especially snacky foods, is important when working from home. You’re going to need and want snacks, so make sure they are at the ready, but try to be mindful of snacks and build them into your routine.
Maintain Regular Communication and Accountability
Whether it’s your PI, boss, or a trusted mentor, maintaining a regular line of communication is really important to help you feel like you are keeping to some kind of schedule. While communication is a two-way street, your advisor might be juggling their own responsibilities, especially in such an unusual situation, so the responsibility is on you to be clear in what you need. Ultimately, it’s your degree/project. In my advisor’s lab, we had weekly lab meetings which I joined via Skype. I also talked with my advisor at least once every two weeks on the phone for a couple of hours to keep him updated, work through any problems, and talk about goals for the upcoming weeks. These meetings were something that I initiated (although he’d check in regularly). Again, it was my degree, so it was my responsibility. When you are working remotely, people can’t see what you are doing, so having a dedicated time to share and update your supervisors is important, both for them to see how you are doing, but also for you to maintain some accountability. Having regular communication is also key to avoid feelings of isolation.
Set aside time each day to relax or do something you enjoy. Again, obvious, but sometimes challenging when you work and live in the same space. For me, when my husband stops working, I do too (most of the time, anyway). We will make supper together, watch TV for a bit, and I will knit or crochet. He might go for a run and I’ll go for a walk. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll take an extra long lunch break, or do some baking. In the summer, I like to work on my patio garden and go for bike rides. I also volunteer for a couple of organizations where I write or post content for their social media platforms. I’m also trying to institute bedtime reading.
Basically, if there’s something that makes you happy, make sure to dedicate time for it each day. Build it into your routine.
If It’s Not Working, Don’t Force It
Not everything will work, so be kind to yourself. I’ve been working from home for years now, and I still have days where I feel like I get next to nothing done. If I feel like I’m having a bad day, there are a few different things I will try. The most important thing is not to force yourself to do something if it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It won’t work and you’ll just end up feeling miserable. For example, if I am struggling with writing a discussion section, I’ll try to switch to writing or editing something easier, like the methods or results. If I’m not feeling the writing at all, I will switch to an easier task, like working on some R code, data entry, or even backing up and organizing my files. Whatever makes you feel like you’re still getting something accomplished, because even backing up data is important (speaking of, have you backed up your data recently? If not, stop reading this and go do it now!).
If all else fails, it’s OK to take a big break, or even quit early sometimes. The grad-school/academic guilt can be tough sometimes, but if you’re feeling that lousy, you probably really need the break. And you’ll probably be more productive the next day. Put it this way: how many 12+ hour days have you put in? Probably quite a few. So if you have a day where you only get 2 or 3 hours of work done, it will all balance out in the end. After my cat died, I hardly did anything other than binge RuPaul’s Drag Race for a month. But I still defended on time, and passed with flying colors. Even if you have a lousy couple of days, or maybe even a couple of weeks, my best advice is the saying: “Be like a dog. Just kick some grass over it and move on.” Be patient with yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.
Lastly, try to enjoy it. Go to bed early. Sleep in. You don’t have to commute anymore! Cuddle pets or loved ones. Call your long-distance bestie or family member. They’re probably lonely too. And don’t forget: you will get the work done, and you get to do it in your comfy clothes!