Back in March, a tweet of remote working guidelines from the Canadian federal government went viral. ‘You are not “working from home”’, it said. ‘You are “at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.”’
I liked this line. A lot of us did. It captured how remote working culture tries to take two kinds of normal life – home; work – and jam them together. The end product should be like 2 + 2 = 4, right? Work. Just, from home. And yet – being at home, during a crisis, trying to work, is actually like trying to put up a tent using spaghetti for tent-poles in a howling gale. No sooner do you get one spaghetti’s worth of uplift than you’re once again flat on your face, with a ripped tarpaulin, and bits of broken pasta in your hair. And that’s even before you get hungry.
Working from home exposes all the boundaries between professional and personal life that we used to take for granted. As I wrote a few months back, ‘boundaries’ are so useful, because they don’t just mark things as different from each other – they create space in which each can flourish as it is. The work/home boundary is so useful, because by putting work away, we can attend to what’s important at home in its own right: cats, children, a homemade pizza. This, in turn, enables us to recover more effectively from depletion at work – which often makes room for curiosity and creativity when we return to it.
But now, work has invaded our home spaces and rhythms like never before, and we are watching the boundaries slop down the kitchen sink. Last year, we might have brought home emails to chew over, but we did not systematically squeeze laptops into the corner of the bedroom every morning. We worried about meetings, but we did not actually import the meeting to the living-room. We talked to our partners about work, but we did not have to sit there and do it in front of them – them with their headphones on one side of the table, you with yours on the other.
Boundaries in space and time matter, because they create different contexts – and that affects the mind. Countless studies have shown that memory, for example, is context-dependent: if you take a group of divers and have them memorise two lists of words – one on the shore, one under water – the list learned underwater is best remembered underwater.
When you’re working from home, the contexts blur. Suddenly it’s as if you have twelve lists, all jostling for attention at the same time. You are being bombarded with so many cues of different types that your working memory is overloaded, trying to synthesise, and pull out salience.
When this happens, your brain will probably start to operate in one of three ways.
1. Worky McWorkFace
One way the mind may compensate for this blur is to pick one mode – work – and stick to it rigidly. Forget checking your emails at five to nine, you’re on Outlook when your alarm goes off. You have no idea what the kids need to take to school today. You haven’t a clue when your last book group was. You take your project to lunch and dinner (forget tea). Your back hurts. Your sit-bones are numb from your chair. You are losing weight. You wake regularly in the night, thinking about work.
If this continues, you are headed for a crash; and over time, burnout.
Your mind may, of course, run as far in the opposite direction from work as it possibly can. You feel disconnected from your team or tutorial group, and your head randomly replays images and worries. When you open your computer in the mornings, you can’t quite remember what your project is about. You drift at work, going through tasks for the sake of it, but you have lost your sense of direction. At first, you miss your commute, and your office. As time goes on, you may become slightly nihilist and existential. (You probably think a lot about neoliberalism.)
Watch this: your mood is dropping, and you may head towards depression.
If your mind doesn’t pick one mode, or zone out completely, it will try to do both at the same time. When it tries to compute eighteenth century politics with the crumbs from cheese on toast, and impact assessments with elderly relatives, and SMART goals with the loose spring in the sofa, over and over again, it becomes like an internet browser with too many tabs open. It freezes; it randomly starts playing loud music from an advertisement just out of sight; eventually, your screen goes blank.
The cognitive effects of this kind of overload are noticeable. You may struggle to make decisions, or make them too quickly. You find that you are irritable, or simply foggy. You may become particularly anxious or low, and you will find it hard to remember things. Important to notice is that there is a compulsive persuasiveness to this overwhelmed fog. It tells you that there’s no way out, and, most likely, that this is all your fault.
How, then, might we turn these conditions around? How do we bring back the boundaries, so that home can be home, and work can be work?
1. The Space We’re In
Never underestimate the power of a desk that you use only for equations, and a sofa that you use only to curl up with Harry Potter.
It’s tempting to work from bed, and to linger at your desk after hours to answer personal emails. Begin to separate these out. Take your mum’s message to the couch; keep the computer you use for work on your desk. Your mind will come to associate the one with home, and the other with work: your contexts will begin to differentiate, and settle.
For many of you, the space you’re in is very limited. You only have one desk, and one chair. This need not matter; the key thing is to change your brain’s perception of space. So turn your desk sideways for work, giving you a different line of sight, and straighten it back at 5pm. Drink your afternoon tea while looking out the window, rather than staring at your keyboard. By differentiating space, you offer your mind discrete cues of focus and meaning, and its frantic whizz begins to calm.
2. A Homing Attention
Home, just like work, is a place of tasks and plans: naturally there’s dinner to be cooked, and bills to be paid. But ‘home’ also needs to be a kind of attention: an absorption, a replenishment, and a delight. The smartphone is inimical to this, because the attention embedded in it is just another jostling twelve lists; more spaghetti-juggling in a howling gale; more of the overloaded, twenty-tabs-open state of mind.
So put away the phone over lunch, and have a podcast waiting instead. When you get up in the morning, listen to your favourite audiobook. When you close your computer at the end of the day, leave your home/work space completely and take a walk. Begin to notice what brings your attention home: the sound of a lovely voice, a compelling story, the soft crackle of the autumn leaves beneath your feet.
This kind of attention does not come easily when we are working from home, and home feels like work. But it’s there, inside you, like a subterranean force awaiting ignition. So make one small change, and stick to it; when it feels easier, make another. Let work begin to contain itself, and let life and interest return to your sense of home. The blur will settle. The signal will emerge from the noise.
I wish you all a very good week.