Working in an office is a terrible way to spend your life. Everyone knows this. It’s why Office Space is a cult classic. It’s why Ron Swanson is a cult hero. It’s why tech companies stuff their buildings with ping pong tables and bean bag chairs and yoga studios, desperately trying to convince everyone present that they are not, in fact, at the office.
The fucking office.
Humans aren’t meant to sit in a cubicle or a conference room for hours and hours a day. We’re supposed to be outside, searching for tubers and small furry creatures to roast over a crackling fire back at our cave settlement. But you can’t exchange tubers for an iPad at the Apple Store. Even if you decided to reject all this consumerism, man, and, like, go commune with nature, you can’t wander the Kalahari Desert. You’ll die hungry and alone in the tall, dry grass. You are a soft, first-world person, and the only hunting and gathering you know how to do is at Kroger.
So unless you want to abandon your white-collar career and learn to do something that’s actually useful to the world like carpentry or plumbing or welding, your best hope of escape from the office is to scam your boss into letting you work from home—or to land a job with a company that lets you work at home from the outset.
Working from home is wonderful, but it can become just as miserable if you’re not careful. I’m here to tell you how to keep the scale from tipping the wrong way.
Make a Dedicated Workspace
The best part about working from home is that you rarely (or maybe never) have to go into the office. The worst part about working from home is that you live at the office. At least, it can get to feeling that way if you don’t establish some boundaries.
Ideally, your home has an extra bedroom or a basement or maybe even a real, honest-to-God study with mahogany paneling and a built-in humidor. Even if all you can scrounge for yourself is space in a closet like Peggy Hill did when she was writing for the Arlen Bystander, you’ll be much happier in the long run. And please, please do not put your desk in your bedroom. If you do that, you’ll be writing anti-government manifestos on the walls within three weeks.
When I began working from home, I used our third bedroom. It meant I got a little peace and quiet when other people were in the house, which was important, because I was editing interviews for a radio program. I needed to be able to listen carefully to what I was hearing. Then our second kid was born. He moved into the third bedroom, and I moved my workspace into a shitty little cubby area in our den. There was zero separation between me and the family. The kids interrupted me all the time, and what should I have expected? I was working in their playroom.
Trying to work at night was hard, too, because the TV is in the den, so there I’d be, trying to make radio, while my wife had House of Cards blaring in the background, with Kevin Spacey yelling like Foghorn Leghorn. You know how you feel about that guy who drops by your desk and constantly talks to you, even when you mention your fast-approaching deadline? You don’t want to have those feelings about your lovely spouse and your sweet, innocent children. You don’t want to look into their little cherub faces and feel only disgust. “That’s not possible,” you’re thinking. Well, Jack Torrance was just going to write a book and look after a hotel, and we all know how that ended up.
Pick a room with a door. Keep it closed, and work there.
Set a Schedule
It’s extremely likely that your coworkers are going to hate you for escaping the hell they are forced to return to every weekday. It’s a given that your boss won’t entirely believe that you are a busy little beaver and not spending all day playing World of Warcraft. The quickest way to calm these suspicious minds is to set a schedule, keep to it, and hit your deadlines. You know, actually work.
Make sure everyone knows that you’re on the clock from 8 to 5, or whatever. If your coworkers use a chat program throughout the day, stay logged in and remain responsive. If there’s a weekly staff meeting, call into that. Skyping into those meetings might seem like a good idea, but you should probably only do that situationally, like if you’re presenting a report. My brother worked from home for about a year and a half, and every week his giant face appeared on the video screen in the conference room, like the Wizard of Oz. He had to train himself to mute his expressions. If he thought someone was talking out of their ass, he couldn’t roll his eyes, because each eye was about two feet across on that screen. And from the other perspective, it’s extremely unsettling to have a giant disembodied head staring at you while everyone is discussing second-quarter target projections.
If your job requires information from other people in the office, build in some extra lead time for those requests, and be patient while you’re waiting. Poor planning on your part should never create an emergency for someone else. If your colleagues tend to be busy throughout the day, it’ll be harder for them to remember to send a data sheet to someone who is not physically with them, offering passive-aggressive reminders. Sitting by yourself, in the utility closet next to the water heater, it’ll feel like an eternity to wait 20 minutes for Jerry to reply to your email. Try to remember that if you had other people to talk to, you wouldn’t expect to hear back from Jerry until the end of the day. That dick. He knows you need that data set, and he’s just letting your fucking messages sit there unread in his inbox. What an asshole.
See how quickly that happens?
Take Care of Yourself
Whatever you did to get ready for work in your previous life as an office drone, do the same thing, without the commute. Wake up on time. Eat breakfast. Take a shower. Get dressed. Maybe don’t wear a suit, but get out of your pajamas. Everyone who hasn’t lived it thinks, “If I worked at home, I’d just wear my PJs all day! LOL!” OK, you’re right. It’s pretty nice to wear pajamas all day. Sometimes. But it’s a slippery slope. First you stop putting on regular clothes. Then you stop showering and grooming. Then you stop leaving the house altogether. That way madness lies. Before you turn into Boo Radley, you have to psyche yourself up. We’re getting out of bed! We’re washing our filthy bodies! We’re putting on clean clothes! You’ll feel better, and you’ll be a better worker, too.
Eat well. It’s true that you have the freedom to heat up tuna casserole in the microwave at lunch time, now that you don’t have to worry about the mean mugging from your co-workers who are having to smell that shit. But if you’re like me, you might want to imagine a few judgmental faces around lunchtime. If not for the shame of social stigma, I would eat like a caveman in public. Working from home, it’s a strong temptation to surround yourself with tubs of ice cream and bags of Doritos and just go nuts. Close the curtains, and not even your neighbors can see you. Throw out the remains, wash up afterward, and no one will know. Except you. Just like taking a shower and getting dressed, eating real food in appropriate portions will make you feel better, and it’ll keep you from wanting to take a nap every afternoon.
Don’t let yourself work too much. It’s likely that part of the implied trade-off for this arrangement is that you’ll be available when others aren’t. When it snows three feet, no one can get to the office, but lucky you—you woke up in your office. No snow day for you! Work already intrudes into our lives too much. If you’re the type of person who already feels compelled to answer work emails no matter the time of day they’re sent to you, then you’re going to be even more aware of that tendency—and it’ll be more important to protect yourself from it.
In the grand scheme of things, you’ve got it pretty damn good, working from home. Maybe it’s worth it to lose a snow day if you never have to sit under fluorescent lights, looking at beige and gray walls again. At the same time, you need to keep to that schedule I mentioned above. If it turns out that you are too often carrying the water for everyone else, it’s time to have a reasonable conversation with your boss. Don’t go in like a maverick police detective, ready to flip over a desk. Try to work out an understanding that allows you to have definite times when you are not on-call. Besides, there’s going to be plenty of times when you’re not available in the middle of a work day, as you’ll see in a moment.
Now that you hardly ever leave your property, it’s easy to fall into the role of chief butler and head superintendent of that property. Sure, you can take the pot roast out of the refrigerator and put it in the oven at 4:30. Sure, you can turn on the sprinklers at 8:30 in the morning and turn them off 30 minutes later. What you cannot do is spend all day making your own pasta for dinner or following the recipe for some damn quince compote that’s hot on Pinterest. You cannot spend all afternoon getting quotes from roofing contractors. You also cannot spend the morning at the DMV, or pick up dry cleaning, or visit the FedEx office to get that box they refuse to leave at the door. If you couldn’t leave the office in the middle of the day to do it, you can’t do it now.
It’s important to maintain the rhythm of your work flow. If you are frequently interrupting yourself to spend time on the phone with Comcast customer service or doing any other annoying task for the good of your family, you will struggle to stay focused on doing the thing that’s paying for your spotty cable service.
Also, don’t sit down to lunch and turn on Orange is the New Black or some other binge bait. Once you start down that road, you really will end up unemployed. When I found out Netflix had hundreds of Law and Order episodes, I felt like Robert Downey, Jr. at a Charlie Sheen house party. I did some serious white-knuckling, getting through that temptation. Whatever the thing is that holds weird addictive power over you—whether it’s Reddit or video games or soap operas or Facebook—stay away.
You might think it’s a good change of pace to take your laptop to a Starbucks or a Panera Bread or some other place in public, just to get out of the house. Before you do that, consider your personality and the nature of your work. If your ability to focus is somewhere close to a crack-smoking hamster with ADHD, stay at home. I tried to work in public places a few times when I was editing radio shows, but it never went well. The milk steamers attached to espresso machines are required to operate at 167 decibels, apparently, which is beyond distracting. The comfy chairs are always taken, and those places tend to attract herds of MFA students working on their novels. If you can shut out the vast annoying sound-canvas of other people, go on with your bad self. I’m jealous.
There will be interruptions that are unavoidable. If your kid gets a fever at school and your spouse can’t leave work, it’s going to fall to you to go get her. When there’s a teacher in-service day, it’s the same deal. The dog ate half a T-shirt and needs emergency surgery? That’s the end of your day. This is where you can take advantage of some of the goodwill you’ve created by being a team player and working during that blizzard. Maybe you can even get the day off without burning a sick day. Maybe your kid isn’t puking constantly, and she’ll just take a nap or watch Disney movies on Netflix for a few hours. I know that’s not super-present parenting, but if it let’s you tie up some loose ends, then go ahead and do it.
The only thing worse than spending all day in an office is commuting to that office. Commute times are getting longer and longer, and that means more time on the road with all those idiots who don’t know how to drive. The one good thing a commute provides is a time buffer between your work life and your home life. While you’re driving to work, yukking it up to the local Morning Zoo, you’re forgetting a little bit about the argument you had with your spouse or the garage that needs to be cleaned out. While you’re riding the subway home, listening to an overly earnest podcast, you’re forgetting a little bit about your micromanaging boss and that backstabbing colleague. This assumes that the rage of the commute does not supplant the rage you are trying to leave behind.
When you remove the commute from your workday, you remove a big chunk of time to be alone, either in your car or in your own head on public transit. Now, when you shut down your laptop and step away from all the deadlines it displays, you open the door and immediately wade into the guerrilla warfare of family life. The kids are fighting again, dinner needs to be made but no one ran the dishwasher that morning, the cat puked on the kitchen table, and one of the smoke detectors keeps beeping. Holy shit.
If your work schedule won’t allow you to build in some alone time before the rest of your family returns home, take every opportunity to get out of your house. Go on a walk. Ride your bike. Visit an art museum. Go to the gym. Go watch a movie. Hell, just drive around for a while. If you’re lucky, you live near water or mountains or other interesting natural features, and you can spend your weekends far away from both your home and your workspace.
Spend lots of time with friends. After a few months of working alone, you’ll realize that you miss human interaction. This can lead to moments of oversharing with the cashier at Walgreens, just for the chance to speak words to a fellow adult. Something as simple as spending an evening with buddies at the bar, watching your hometown team break everybody’s hearts again, will actually do wonders for you. Even as you’re screaming profanities at the television and crying in disappointment, you’re repairing your psyche. You are not Jack, the dull boy who always works and never plays. Work has not gotten the better of you. Your family will not die at your crazed hand. You are living your best life, so get another round for everybody, because they’re keeping you sane enough to earn the money to pay for it.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.
Lead image by Tara Jacoby
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.