by Casey Wojtalewicz
We're a few weeks into quarantine life now, and though it feels a bit rote to say, I never thought we’d live through a time of nationwide / global quarantine. But the universe is showing us the true breadth of what’s possible. It's scary and problematic and fascinating all at once.
But one thing seems certain. As we go about defining the new status quo, even if it's temporary, most of us are doing it from home. That’s probably a new thing for many people. Whether yours is a job that requires you to actively keep up through email, video calls and the like, or you’ve found yourself in a vacuum (laid off, furloughed, perhaps ready to start something new), I thought I'd put together some thoughts Ally and I have gleaned from our past experiences working at home over the years.
For myself, that experience involved several years working as a touring musician, freelancer, and—of course—in the early days of Canyon Coffee, before we had an office!
Working from home sounds great, and in many ways it is. I've certainly enjoyed it over the years. But in my experience, it takes awhile to get used to. Personally, it took several months when I was new to working from home before I felt adept at focusing to consistently make progress, stick to timelines and achieve goals. Also, every person is different. So different people will require different strategies and tactics to work effectively.
Moreover, in addition to finding ourselves working from home, a lot of us are now home with our partners and/or families, meaning much less alone time. This would make for a significant contrast, even for people who were already working from home.
On the flip side, being alone during quarantine would leave one much more prone to "their own devices" and could present its own obstacles. If anyone's feeling alone out there, I hope you're able to find good company in calls with friends, family, and good books, and maybe get lost in creative projects you've been wanting to make space for.
A last note before diving in—there’s a lot of “life hackery” and “life optimization” culture out there. It’s interesting stuff, and a lot of knowledge has been accumulated. But to me, living a life at max productivity is not really the goal, here. I feel the emphasis should always be placed on one's well-being, living a balanced life, and ultimately, nourishment of the soul.
How you do that comes down to you, the point is just to ensure you're making space for it, whatever it is! In the meantime, here are some thoughts on how to work better from home:
(1) On Circadian Rhythms
Let’s start with biology.
Not everyone is wired to wake up early. In his book When, Daniel Pink compiles research on time and our biological clocks. The research shows that, on a daily basis, everyone has three distinct energetic periods during the hours we’re awake: a peak, a trough, and a gradually rising and sustained energy.
If you wake up naturally early (a.k.a. you're an Early Bird), you likely have your peak energy in the morning, a trough in the afternoon, and gradually rising and stable energy in the early evening until you go to sleep. If you’re this kind of person, it's ideal for you to do the work that requires the most focus and attention (especially left-brained activities) in the early morning, take a break in the afternoon, and wrap up work in the late afternoon when your energy rebounds.
If you’re a Night Owl, you wake up in the morning in your trough, experience a gradual rise in energy later in the day, and reach peak energy at night-time when most people are going to sleep (aside—
particular circadian variation was an evolutionary tactic to produce solid night-watch people?). If you're a Night Owl, don't beat yourself up for not being sharp in the morning. You're better served saving your brain-intensive tasks for later. Night Owls are in the minority, but teenagers and young adults, include college-age adults, are disproportionately Night Owls. Indeed, research has shown teens and young adults perform much better academically when they're able to sleep in, usually past 9am. The majority of people gradually revert to being Early Risers throughout their mid-20s.
Understanding and respecting your natural circadian rhythm can be a game changer for—yes—your daily productivity, but more importantly for your happiness! The simple awareness that you have an energetic “trough” every day is empowering. During that low-energy period, you’re likely to be so foggy and unproductive that you’d actually accomplish more in the day if you took that time to take a break, take a nap, go on a walk, or have a coffee, and then return to work refreshed and able to be productive.
Finally, it's important to stay in tune, because that rhythm can change over time. Lately, Ally, who's historically been a classic early bird, has actually been having her peak energy for work at night. So now that's when she gets a lot of her work done. That's part of the joy of have freedom over your schedule.
Once you’re in tune with your daily circadian rhythm, creating a schedule that fits with your natural energetic flow is possible. And creating a schedule is everything. Every other point on this list really ties back to having and adhering to a schedule.
At home, you’re the boss of your time. There are neither managers holding you to the clock, nor colleagues to color the collective influence of general busy-ness. Depending on your personality and the job at hand (or lack thereof), this freedom can lead to different outcomes. Without a schedule, you might never get down to work and accomplish very little. Or you can go the other way, and burn yourself out by working constantly with no rest.
I'll admit it—I’ve been both those people! When I was a full-time musician, home from tour, I wasn’t great at sticking to a schedule and therefore got work done more in spurts. In hindsight, I wish I would have set goals and stuck to a daily work schedule to make consistent progress.
When starting Canyon Coffee and working from home, on the other hand, there were long streaks in the early days when I would wake up around 7:30, start working, and not stop until late in the evening.
I'm an average early riser. I usually wake up at 7am every day. When I became aware of and incorporated my daily energetic flow into my workday, this was my ideal schedule when working from home:
7am - 8:30am: Wake up, meditate, make coffee, journal, read or go on a walk
8:30am - 9:30am: Start work by front-loading important (critical) tasks—not checking emails (more on this later)
9:30am - 12:00pm: First email check and correspondence at 9:30. Then other work in order of priorities.
11:00am - 12:00pm: Time reserved for calls. If no calls scheduled, continue other work.
12:00pm - 1:00pm: Lunch and a walk
1:00pm - 3:30pm: Work
3:30pm - 5:00pm: Trough time. This is when I do my afternoon meditation, and would often take a nap or decompress with a book, walk, or work-out. Also a good time to meet up with a friend.
5:00pm - 6:00pm: Wrap work. I start the hour wrapping any projects near completion, and end with (1) a review of what was accomplished during the day and (2) outlining priorities and schedule for the following day.
6:00pm - Bedtime: Make dinner, relax, enjoy
Create a schedule that works for you, and do your best to adhere to it. I like to lay out my day with pen and paper in a daily planner for myself to stick to, crossing out tasks, projects and calls as I complete them. Communicating your schedule to your partner(s) / roommate(s) at home will also give you a bit of a buffer to protect from interruption.
Ultimately this is about you protecting your time and your well-being.
(3) Morning Ritual
If you’ve followed Canyon Coffee for awhile, you know the morning ritual is at the heart of our company and why we started in the first place. To us, the ritual is a routine that's elevated by carrying it out with intention and even reverence. It’s something we make space for and respect—not to be interrupted or cut short. It is our time to ease into the day gracefully, lay a foundation that’s grounded, calm, and poised, and do something mindfully that's special for ourselves.
For Ally and I, this typically includes a 20 minute meditation when we wake up, followed by whoever's up first making a pour over—a ritual, in its own rite. We drink our coffee black, out of whichever of our favorite mugs speaks to us in the moment. We then usually write in our journals or read whatever book or magazine we're into. The total “ritual” time is usually a little over an hour, and afterwards I’m motivated and ready to dive into whatever the day brings.
Ultimately, the ritual is about starting your day off right, and creating a buffer or space between when you wake up and when you begin work.
(4) On Phones
Quick note on phones. I turn mine on airplane mode every night a while before I go to bed, and leave it in the kitchen. The only time we really have a phone in our bedroom is if we have to wake up before 7am for a meeting or flight. With the obvious exception of when there are important work events, meetings or productions taking place early in the day, I don’t take the phone off airplane mode until after my morning ritual.
Phones can be literally addicting. In the battle to maintain focus, your brain and body are constantly vying to check the phone for a potential dopamine hit in the form of a notification, a message, or something interesting to pique your attention.
If you have trouble keeping away from your phone, and you’re new to working at home, I suggest you leave your phone on silent in a part of the home where you’re not working, and check it intermittently during breaks from work.
Here, I’m referring to two connected types of separation: schedule and physical.
With regard to schedule, this means having a clear, distinctive separation between one activity and the next. For instance, when we're working from home, we don’t just casually open our computers and start working at the kitchen table when we're “done” with our morning ritual. We put our books away, put the Chemex and kettle away, rinse our mugs, shower and get ready. Getting ready implies dressing for work, too—as if you're going to an office or meeting. Other ways to distinguish transitions in the schedule are to take 5 minutes to do something completely unrelated to what you were doing and what’s up next. Take a walk, or water your plants.
Next, physical separation. Ideally, you can establish one area (a whole studio or room, if you’re lucky) reserved for work. That’s the place you go when it’s time to work, and anyone else in your space knows to respect it as such. If you’re in a small home and don’t have the privilege of a separate space or room, at least reserve a space where you store your work equipment. My work equipment (calendar/scheduling notebook, note pad, laptop, phone) is all kept in my work bag in our den. The bag has a home—a specific place where it lives whenever it’s not being used. Both the act of setting up my “desk” and putting it away at the end of the day serve a physical separation to transition from a work environment to a casual one.
Finally, when it comes to separation, it's important to remember that everyone needs alone time—even extroverts. If you're sharing the home with a partner or family, make sure you're doing what you have to to ensure a little separation for yourself. Don't insist on doing all activities together. Feel okay about taking a walk by yourself, and feel okay if your partner wants to do the same. When we're working at home together, Ally usually takes a daily afternoon solo walk to the nearby park or market.
(6) On Emails
Between Ally and I, we have two approaches to emails. Ally likes starting her work day on emails. As a team, this is great, because—as you'll see—I almost never start my day on emails. Depending on your line of work, the idea of not checking your emails first thing might not even be a remote possibility! If it is, here's my take:
One summer, Ally and I were lucky enough to travel in Europe for a month. We had to continue working during this time, of course, but we managed to pull it off, and the time difference between Europe and California taught me an important lesson. When there was important work to get done, I’d set aside time to do it during the morning or daytime. Towards the end of that time, I’d send out emails accordingly. Around 4:00 in Europe, people in California had started work and responded to my emails. I’d spend 15-20 minutes on emails at this time, and then once again around 7:00 or 8:00, when needed.
And that was it.
And so, within the working hours, I place an important distinction on when I’m on emails. Why? Emails put you at the mercy of whoever happens to be in your inbox. It places emphasis on other people’s agendas, and what they need from you, over the priorities you’ve established are most important to you in that moment. Every incoming email is an opportunity for a new idea, potential opportunity or solicitation capable of taking hours of your attention.
As a result, I try never to start my day with emails. I lay out the critical tasks and projects that need work done, and I start my day with that work—when my mind is most clear and at its sharpest.
Working in this way, I’ve realized that I can usually process all emails in short segments of time throughout the day. I usually check in around 9:30, 11:30, 2:00 and 5:00. If I start my day with emails, I’m prone to spend ALL DAY in my inbox. More importantly, working in this way enables you to set your agenda—both for yourself and for the people you’re corresponding with.
(7) On Chores and Other Traps
So you’ve diagnosed your unique circadian rhythm, you’ve made a schedule, you did your morning ritual and now you’re working. But when you just went to the bathroom, you noticed there are a lot of dishes in the sink. You’re not a slob—you want to keep a clean house—so you wash the dishes. While you’re in the kitchen, you realize you’re kind of hungry so you make a bowl of granola. You sit down to eat it and get lost on Instagram for awhile. Again, you wash your bowl and spoon to keep the kitchen clean.
This is probably the first big challenge anyone new to working at home faces. There are myriad tasks to take one’s time at home. Spending all day at home pits your homebody / housekeeping instincts against your objective to get work done.
Ultimately, it’s important to recognize these little tasks and chores for what they are (with regard to your workday): procrastination. Sometimes the “work” on your plate isn’t as interesting, nor does it feel as productive or fulfilling as, getting some work done around the house.
Indeed, in How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell lays out studies that reveal maintaining focus actually requires a constant re-engagement (re-curiosifying?) of the task or project at hand. In other words, no one just maintains focus for hours at a time. People with a high ability to focus are actually just good at convincing themselves that what they’re doing is interesting. Keep this in mind when you’re working. Social media, as an example, is always going to promise a little dopamine hit that your brain and body will find more appealing than whatever TPS report you’re working on (and in Odell’s book, we learn that, indeed, there’s an entire economy set on capitalizing off your attention).
And even if you’ve taken the step of removing your phone from your workspace or turning off social media, chores and tasks promise to distract you.
My advice here is to (1) recognize that chores are not a part of your professional work day, (2) do not break your schedule to do them and (3) designate a time of day for daily household work, and a day of the week for more intensive household work (vacuuming, dusting, etc.).
Taking breaks is critical to a balanced and productive work day. A good break is intentional. It’s a wholly different thing than subconsciously picking up your phone and getting lost for 10 minutes. Planning a break ahead of time gives you something to look forward to. You can treat them like a reward or incentive you're earning by staying focused for the time you’ve set aside for work.
The best breaks have something enjoyable contained within. A walk, a cup of coffee, reading some articles. For me, any break involves a clean break, or disengagement, from work: closing my computer, closing my notebook, standing up to stretch and move around, and then getting into whatever my break is going to entail.
Interestingly, studies have shown the most restorative and rejuvenating breaks involve: plants.
Yes, the most effective breaks involve plants. How? Literally, just being around or even looking at plants — even looking at PHOTOS of plants, in the absence of real ones — helps restore us to a greater degree than plantless-views and environments. This is also from Daniel Pink’s book.
Bringing it back to the home — having plants in the home is important on multiple levels. Obviously, plants filter and clean your air, and create oxygen. The more oxygen in your home, the better you breathe, the better you think, the better you’re able to focus. Bring 4 to 5 plants into a room, go on a walk for an hour or two, and when you come home you will likely notice a difference in the air quality inside. Keep plants especially good at producing oxygen in your bed for a better night’s sleep.
Aside from the chemical, studies abound of the sentience of plants. They’re living, breathing things, and they contribute more than just oxygen to a space. They’re companions, they have presence, they enjoy good music, and for whatever reason, it’s literally good for you just to look at them (still amazed).
Make sure you have some good plantmates.
(10) Feng Shui
On the plant thread, how you set up and arrange your home and work space, down to the choices of colors and materials present, can make a significant impact on your ability not only to focus, but to relax, to sleep, to feel comfortable and secure. Consult the time-tested methods and wisdom of home and room design, like feng shui, or just adopt a practice of consistently moving furniture, plants, and art around until you find set-ups that feel conducive to whatever goals you have for your spaces.
Finally, back to the literal “work.” I touched on it in my sample daily schedule, but ending each day with a review of what you’ve accomplished is an important tactic to keep yourself motivated and feel that you’ve made progress. This helps you find some “closure” to the day’s work, and eases the ability to turn off for the evening.
It’s after I do this quick review that I create a brief overview of the next day’s schedule. This way, I wake up with an agenda emphasizing my priorities.
On a greater level, especially if you're a freelancer, it's crucial to set your own goals and timelines for things you need to accomplish. Creating week and 2-week or monthly goals , broken down into tasks, will give you something to measure your progress against.
In closing, I feel like there was a lot more to think about than I anticipated when I sat down to begin writing this! This just feels like a small sampling of some lessons we've learned from our time working at home. We'd love to hear from you if anything stuck out as helpful, or if there are any other great insights you would share from your experience.
In these days of the pandemic, Canyon Coffee has continued moving, roasting and shipping out coffee with all the normal precautions we take as a producer of Certified Organic coffees, plus extra precautions to minimize person-to-person contact. While we have external work environments (our office and roaster), it's been a real joy to work again primarily from home.
Below is a photo from the time before, when our sole office was in our home here in Echo Park. We hope, wherever you are, you can find some hidden joys in this time at home.
Casey & Ally