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When I was a young girl, my mother had a pottery studio in our basement. I loved looking at the kiln, the shelves filled with clay, shelves filled with glazes, a wheel, tools, pots in the process of drying, finished pots. The chemical smell from the firing kiln, the sight of clay scraps dropping to the floor after my mom trimmed them down with a tool that looked similar to the one they used to clean my teeth at the dentist, the stencils and templates and green and blue glazes: all of these sights and smells contributed to my childhood. Going home after school was a different experience for me than it was for the other kids I knew. My mom was the only mom I knew during my entire childhood who was also a working artist.
When I think back to the time I spent with my mom -- who was always home because she worked from home -- as a kid, there are two things that always come back to me. 1.) She loved me ferociously. We read books together, played games, fixed lunch, and she listened to my endless stories. She was always there with the Band Aids and peroxide within seconds if I fell and scraped my knee. She let me cuddle up next to her and watch Days of Our Lives on days I was home sick from school. She encouraged me, loved me, played with me, and helped me grow. 2.) When it was time for her to go back to work, she'd say, "Okay, it's time for me to go back to work." And she would, no matter how comfortable or cozy or involved we were in our playing. Sometimes I would try to persuade her to skip work for the day and keep playing. Think of all the hot chocolate we could make. Think of all the stories we could read. But my mom never wavered. She was her own boss and she required herself to do a certain amount of work each day. As an adult looking back, I realize I've never met someone with a better work ethic than my mom.
Here's the thing about working from home, being self-employed, or in many cases both: You can either do the work or not. It's up to you what gets done. If you want to spend your day drinking hot chocolate and reading stories, that's an option. If you want to take an hour and go for a run, that's not a problem. If you want to sleep in, that's okay. But if you're not careful and you don't have some sort of system, a day can pass without you getting any actual work done. I recognized even as a child that the discipline my mom had did not come easily -- that there were likely many days when going back into that studio and getting work done felt like a chore, but a necessary one for the bottom line. Whether you're an artist or a writer or working in a field that's not creative at all, the ultimate goal is to get paid for the work you do. When you're not spending your days actually working, that's a tough trick to pull off.
This is a lesson I've learned -- and learn again and again -- in the decade I've spent working as a freelance writer. If you don't do the work, the work doesn't get done. When I started adding daily workouts to my schedule, you'd think I'd be more distracted from work than ever. What I found instead was that workouts actually helped me to structure my day better. I've realized over the years I'm never going to be quite like my mom. She can set her alarm early, wake up at a specific time, and go down her to-do list like it's nobody's business. When my days are too structured, I get angry and resentful: what's the point of working from home and having my own schedule if I spend my days boxing myself in? For me, there has to be a little more freedom or I'll go crazy -- but there can't be too much freedom or I'll never get anything done. It's a lot like everything else in life where the ultimate goal is to find balance.
As always, I can't sit here and tell people: Do This. This Is What Works. What works for me isn't the end-all, be-all. It's just what works for me. And by sharing what works for me, maybe I'll give you a few ideas for what might work for you. When it comes to finding time to work, work out, and balance the rest of life, these are the things that work for me.
1.) I don't think of my work day as an 8-hour work day.
I know there are a lot of people who work jobs where they just go-go-go from the time they arrive in the morning until they leave for the evening. I know there are even more people, however, who find themselves having downtime throughout the day. In every job I've ever worked, whether it was waiting tables or sitting behind a desk in an office, there comes a point in most days when the workload diminishes and you find yourself having to fill the time and space. This is when people chat with their coworkers, make a cup of coffee, eat a snack, check emails and Facebook, go to the mailbox on a different floor to kill some time, etc. I believe that in most jobs, when you add all this time up, it's pretty surprising to see just how much time you spend doing these things versus doing actual work. I know there are plenty of exceptions, but I would argue that very few jobs require eight straight hours of work with none of the aforementioned activities sprinkled in. With this in mind, I don't aim for an 8-hour workday. Again, I'm sure there are plenty of people who work from home and sit down and DO aim for 8 hours of work. I feel more productive, less likely to get distracted, and happier when I aim for less.
2.) I try to work out first thing in the morning -- but I don't sweat it if I don't.
For me, it really works best to just hammer out a workout first thing. Then I have the entire day ahead of me to get other things done. For anyone who works from home, I recommend working out earlier in the day. That said, there are some days when that's not possible and some days when that just sounds terrible. I've found that when I have a deadline looming, I can't get myself into the right headspace to work out until I've worked on my assignment for several hours. But I've also found I feel a lot less productive and a lot more sluggish when I don't work out first thing, no matter how hard I work out later in the day. To combat this, I try to do my best to work ahead of deadlines. If I always finish my work before it's due, I never have to wake up with that Agh, It's Due Soon! panic that leads me to skip the workout and head for work first.
3.) I break up my day into small chunks.
Another trap of working from home is that you're in your house all the time and if you're like me, that means you'll be tempted to spend your day keeping up with the house -- dishes, laundry, etc. It helps me to break my day into sections. I have one responsibility and one responsibility only during the first section of the day: to work out. During the next section, I devote approximately an hour to housework and that's the only thing I worry about during that time. I'm the type of person who works better in a clean environment, so it helps me to schedule this in before I start working. Sometimes this means I don't actually sit down and start working until after lunch. That's okay with me. I know those hours I spend after lunch are going to be productive. I'm not going to be checking Facebook. I'm not going to get up to do a load of laundry. During the work section of my day, I work. (Note: I'm not a mom (yet!) and I realize breaking up your day like this may not be possible if you are. Like I said, this is just what works for me.)
4.) I insert as many mini bursts of physical activity throughout the day as possible.
I personally don't think it's healthy to just sit down at a desk and work for four straight hours. Your body gets strained, your mind starts wandering, you lose your productivity, and before you know it you're in the kitchen looking for a distracting snack. For me, it's helpful to plan on getting up once an hour for a mini break. There are times when it's helpful for this to be a bigger break -- like if you need to get out in the fresh air for a quick walk or if you want to make yourself a cup of tea or a healthy snack. Most of the time, though, this can be a super quick 30-second break: just long enough to get up and do 10 jumping jacks or crunches. Every time I do this, I feel renewed when I sit back down. And then I solidly work through the next hour before my next mini break.
5.) If I'm going to be at my computer for a long time, I sit on a wobble cushion.
A wobble cushion is a cushioned exercise disc that helps align my balance when I sit on it. The trick of it is that it's uncomfortable to sit on for more than an hour at a time -- which also makes it perfect for reminding me to get up and take my mini breaks. Again, I sit and do a solid hour of work, get up for a small stretch of time, do another solid hour of work, and repeat until the work is finished. I've been amazed to see how much more I can accomplish in these short work days at home than when I was working at an office and had to find ways to stretch the time when the workload lagged in the afternoons. When I work from home, the work is done when the work is done. And when the work is done, I can move on to a new section of my day. This could be another workout or another hour of housework or it could be an entire shift in gears toward something fun and relaxing. Just as my mom always knew how to say, "Okay, it's time for me to go back to work," I think it's also important to say, "Okay, my work for the day is done."
6. I take my lunch break outside.
This one clearly only works when the weather allows, which luckily has been consistent lately. I think this is my favorite workday habit because it leaves me so energized and happy to come back to work when it's finished. I don't know how much longer the weather here will hold, so I'm taking advantage of every second of it while it lasts.
7. I prep my meals ahead of time.
Any day I find myself running around, running behind on work tasks, not sure where I'm going to squeeze a workout in, and completely stressed out, there's a huge chance I didn't prep my meals ahead of time. Making fresh meals from scratch every day is a lovely idea in theory but it ultimately leads to a kitchen full of dirty dishes, which leads to extra time spent cleaning up, which leads to less time spent working, which leads to less time to work out and more time to feel frazzled. Meals don't have to be 100% made ahead of time, but it's extremely helpful if at least some of the ingredients have been prepped ahead of time -- the veggies have already been sliced, the tofu has already been cooked, etc. Then I can just add quinoa or a whole-grain tortilla, throw in some hummus or beans, throw on the veggies and tofu and be done with it. I'm a big fan of both eggs and oatmeal in the morning, which are simple meals that only require one pot or pan. If you want to eat something more complicated, it's helpful to plan it out ahead of time. Even it it's a smoothie, it helps to have your frozen fruit measured out and your ingredients ready to go so you're not taking time away from your workday to make food.
8.) I keep my workouts simple.
I absolutely see the value in setting up a group exercise class and holding yourself accountable to be there a few days a week. If it's at the right time of day, I think something like this could be extremely beneficial for someone who works from home as a healthy impetus to get out of the house. I also think about transit time, shower time, etc., and ask myself how much of my day I'm really willing to devote to working out. For me, I like quick, simple, at-home workouts best. I like runs that I can start from my front door. I like 30-minute exercise videos or a quick workout program like Fit Girls Guide or BBG. Then I take a quick shower afterward and it's done.
9.) I break up my workouts if necessary.
Sometimes my strength training and running days fall on the same day. Sometimes I have the time and stamina to do them back-to-back. Sometimes I do not. When I don't, I just think of the second workout as another section of the day, to be finished whenever I've finished the other sections. If I think the endorphins will help me with my work, I'll make sure to get my workout in before I work in the afternoon. If I think the exercise will be a nice release at the end of the day, I'll schedule it for then and think of it as a reward. Either way, it's a scheduled part of my day. Just as my mom would say "It's time to go back to work now" I need to sometimes say "It's time to go work out now."
10.) If I have to get up early, I will -- but I also go easy on myself on the days when I need to be flexible.
Most of my working days are spent completely at home. Some days, though, I'll have an appointment or several appointments I'll need to factor into the day. Depending on the timing of these appointments, it may be best to just wake an hour earlier and finish my workout instead of trying to figure out a way to squeeze it into the afternoon. If that's not possible though or if I just can't muster up the energy to do it, I allow myself to do a little less work than I normally do in order to fit everything in. And I don't feel bad about it because there are other days when I work extra hours. Everything balances out as long as you don't allow any one thing to throw everything else out of whack. If I have several appointments spread throughout the day and I know I'm going to be running around like a madwoman, I may have to shorten my workout and shorten the hours I spend working. And that's okay. It always evens out in the end.