I try to take a design approach to most of life. I begin by assessing my specific context, carefully identifying problems, and designing the tools I’ll need for whatever needs to be done. This approach can be used for daily habits or developing a book-publishing strategy at work.
It can also be used for planning how to survive working from home with a family of five.
Here is a nine-point outline for how I’m thinking about the days ahead.
1. Recognize that the lines between work and home are now blurred.
Most of us will realize this dynamic through some sort of conflict that will emerge. It will sneak up on us. We will be frustrated because we are overworking (Since I’ve been working from home, I’ve spent even less time with my family), or underworking (Since I’ve been working from home, I’ve been far less productive).
Because work and home will not be divided by time (morning to evening) and space (commute from location to another), the first step toward a healthy work-from-anywhere dynamic is recognizing the lines are blurred from the get-go.
2. Schedule a start and end time to your work day.
This follows from the first principle. Scheduling a start and end time to your work day helps un-blur the lines a bit. This means—perhaps even more than usual—you aren’t responding to calls, texts, or emails outside of your designated work hours.
Because work and home will not be divided by time and space the first step toward a healthy work-from-anywhere dynamic is recognizing the lines are blurred from the get-go.
Even better, physically move to a unique location in your home or apartment—preferably the same place everyday—and don’t go to that location unless you’re on work time. The more you honor these boundaries for yourself and with others, the more effective you will be.
3. Recognize how much you depend on habits to get through the day (and how you need to make new ones).
Habits permit our brains to avoid repetitive decision-making. It’s exhausting to rely on the daily decision-making process just to get out the door: Do I wake up and then get in the shower? Or do I wake up and go to the coffee maker? Do I brush my teeth and then go to my closet? Or do I get dressed and then brush my teeth?
Believe it or not, the most successful people spend the least amount of energy making basic decisions. They use habits to get them from their pillow to their desk “automatically,” already engaged in the mental energy of making higher-level decisions. When all of our habits are disrupted by drastic changes in circumstances, highly successful people quickly form a new set of habits, or a routine. Start your week by designing your new routine. Design good habits for this week.
4. Diversify your entertainment beyond streaming.
During times of extended social isolation, your brain will begin to notice something is missing. It’s missing stimuli you get throughout the course of a normal day. The easiest thing is to fill that void with more streaming, and more scrolling.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a bookman by trade, but why not use this time to finally do something about that nagging monthly thought, I should find more time to read books? A diverse range of inputs—whether they are books, podcasts, audiobooks, sketching, painting—for your brain will go a long way toward helping you persevere without suffering too much from that sneaky sense of, What is going on with me this week?
5. Evaluate at the end of the week, and plan for the following week.
Things aren’t going to go well at first. That’s ok! Schedule a time at the end of the week to redesign your habits for the following week. You’re going to know more then than you do now about what you need to thrive under these conditions.
6. Find appropriate avenues for both social connection and also solitude.
This is related to the point about entertainment; your brain needs to be connected with other brains, but it also needs rest apart from other people. Finding solitude—if you live with roommates or family—will be the more difficult thing to find. But both introverts and also extroverts depend on solitude, even if in different doses.
A diverse range of inputs—books, podcasts, audiobooks, sketching, painting—for your brain will go a long way toward helping you persevere.
Working from home may expose an unexpected deficiency of “alone time” for everybody, because we are anticipating the lack of social connection. We need to make plans to FaceTime with friends, and find time alone somewhere in our living spaces as we practice social distancing.
7. Find appropriate avenues for exercise/movement.
On an average day, I walk a couple of miles in the course of getting to and from my office space. I leave the house, walk to the car, get out of the car in the parking garage, walk to the elevator and down the hallway to my office. I walk around our campus to find our meeting space in the morning. I walk back. And I repeat this process in reverse in the evening. My body and mind depend on this movement for my sense of general well-being. It’s up to us to find time and places to move around to reassure our brains that we’re doing ok.
8. Limit your anxiety by checking news only twice per day.
Be honest: how much has your online reading gone up in the last two weeks? Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, offers a great idea for limiting our anxiety: limit the inputs that fuel anxiety. No, he doesn’t propose we try to be uninformed. Rather, he proposes that we schedule specific times, once in the morning and again in the evening, to check in with the outside world. Any news more urgent will find its way to you through other people.
9. How is all of this going to affect your spiritual discipline?
As much as possible, I try to avoid being too specific in prescribing how someone should structure their spiritual disciplines. No matter where we are on that journey with time for prayer, Bible-reading, meditation, fasting, and so on, we can always do better.
A sense of spiritual security is the best foundation for thriving in every other aspect of our day.
I struggled initially as a Christian because I failed to have a daily “quiet time” like the ones described by my mentors, so I felt like a spiritual failure. Regardless, we ought to have a plan to which we commit, and one that’s on a growth trajectory. It’s up to us to design our day in a manner that assumes a sense of spiritual security is the best foundation for thriving in every other aspect of our day.
Productivity in a Pandemic
My wife shared a meme with me that said:
When the Great Plague of London was going around in 1665, Cambridge University shut down and Isaac Newton was forced to stay home. During that time, he invented calculus, parts of optic theory and allegedly while sitting in his garden, he saw an apple fall from a tree that inspired his understanding of gravity and laws of motion.
I don’t know if these claims are true. But what if this strange period of time—slowing us down, focusing us in—gave way to greater productivity, innovation, or even spiritual revival?