Monthly Archives: December 2013

Working from home, or living at work?

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A fellow PhD student (not in my faculty) recently mentioned in conversation that she occasionally sleeps over at uni to get tasks completed, and once spent three unbroken days on campus. I was a bit horrified, I must admit. Apart from the lack of comfortable facilities (I’m thinking of a bed, in particular, which I could do without for a single night but not for three days in a row) this seems very unhealthy at a psychological level. Surely if your workload – or work habits – result in overnight stays, at least one of those aspects needs a serious examination?

It occurs to me, however, that working from home can end up being just like this, with the added benefit of a bed but the added disadvantage that when you see a fluff bunny on the floor you think ‘I suppose sooner or later I’m going to have to clean that up’.

Until very recently, I have undertaken both my paid work and my unpaid study from the salubrious location of my dining room table. To begin with, I cleared everything away each evening as a symbolic gesture, a demonstration that I understand boundaries – I am, after all, a social worker. I always sat at a different chair for meals than the one I worked in. But gradually there were activities that needed to be left out for the night, then for a few nights, and finally it became apparent that perching our dinner on our knees on the couch was simply the way we now lived.

Similarly, as there is no room for my bookshelf elsewhere, it lives in my bedroom, with the result that the last thing I see at night and the first thing in the morning are my folders of completed assignments, journal articles (I’m not one for reading quantities of text from the screen), and stationery.

I offer the following thought to anyone contemplating the ‘luxury’ of working from home:

  • One of the benefits of working from home is that when you get a break, you can clean the toilet.
  • One of the disadvantages of working from home is that when you get a break, you can clean the toilet.

Think very, very, carefully about whether you really want to work from home, and how you will manage it so that you don’t end up feeling like you are living at work. There are certainly advantages either way, and no one correct fit for everyone. In my experience, though, the tentacles of ‘work’ creep insidiously into the nooks and crannies of your ‘non-work’ life. I don’t only mean hours, either. I mean thoughts, emotions, your very identity (not to be too dramatic or anything). The very benefits of not having to get dressed, put on make-up, spend time travelling between locations, deal with workplace culture and relationships, as well as the possibility of multi-tasking different aspects of a many-layered life, sneakily morph into the significant disadvantages of blurred boundaries, isolation, stir-craziness, multiple distractions and endless opportunities for procrastination.

A few weeks ago, my eye was caught by a flyer sticky-taped to the wall of a local shop, advertising sub-lease of a desk space in an open plan office. Curious, I decided to check it out, and as a result I now work 2 days per week in an office, ten minutes’ walk from where I live. Ironically, the space is available because so many of the resident team now work from home. There’s a quiet focus among the ones who remain. I’m finding that my productivity goes right up when I’m there, and I can’t begin to describe the lightness of locking my filing cabinet and walking home at the end of the day.

As my PhD is part-time, I don’t get an allocated desk space at uni, but I have a locker and I’ve commandeered a filing cabinet drawer in a shared Research Student office. I’m able to keep my laptop and USBs in a backpack, and the books and papers that need to live at home are contained into a place that can, when necessary, be relegated out of sight and (more or less) out of mind. I still do some work and study from home, but am not immersed in them.

This balance is working very well for me. I no longer feel like I live at work. And equally importantly, my partner no longer feels like he lives in my workplace

Urgently needed: A sense of urgency.

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It’s been as good as three months since my last post. That’s appalling. I could trot out the traditional December cry (‘Where has the year gone?’) as if it’s some huge surprise that it’s December again, even though we all say this every year and I can confidently predict that this time next year we’ll all be plaintively wailing the same thing.

In fact, I know exactly where the year’s gone. It’s been full of work, study, travel, socialising, packing as much activity into each day as possible and collapsing exhausted in front of the TV with a (petite) glass of wine, before catching some sleep and getting up to do it all over again.

It’s been a good year, in the scheme of things. I’ve achieved a lot. On the research front, I’ve completed my required Units of Study, presented my first poster at an international conference, received approval to continue my project as a PhD rather than DSW, and had my proposal accepted without changes. I had hoped to have my ethics application through by now, but that was ahead of my ‘real’ schedule.

And that’s the crux of my problem, I think. I’m ahead of schedule, and instead of capitalising on that, which was my plan, so that I could spend more time on data collection and analysis, I find myself coasting instead of peddling. I’ve set aside two days per week for concentrated effort on study-related tasks, most particularly working towards the ethics application, but as my blog activity attests, I’m not really in the zone. To use the cycling metaphor, my head is replaying a mantra ‘must peddle! must peddle!’ but the necessary adrenalin is not kicking in, and my feet are relaxing happily on the pedals as I drift along with the minimum momentum required for forward movement.

The outside world is not helping, of course – it’s not really my fault. All these Christmas jingles, holiday talk, work-related imperatives (there’s no absence of a sense of urgency there, and work sits crouched and waiting to leap into any distractable ‘study moment’ – especially problematic since this gives a feeling of having achieved something worthy, when it is really just a sophisticated form of procrastination).

What to do? I’ve tried focusing on different spaces for different activities (some success with this), imposing ‘pretend’ deadlines (pfft…my brain knows and is not going to be hoodwinked that easily. I’m still ahead of schedule, after all…) and making a day-by-day, hour-by-hour plan of activities (but I’ll just check my email first…).

So this is a blog post without any real content. It’s just an exercise. Sit down, I told myself, and write a damn blog post. Do it. Now. So I did. And you know what? I think it’s working. I’m at my computer, I’ve written something (sort of), and I’m seeing that zone I need to be in. Perhaps I don’t need a sense of urgency after all – that will come anyway, in due course. Perhaps I need to approach this like a marathon, not a long sprint. After all, I’ve recently proved to myself that if I just roll out of bed at 5.30 and put on my exercise gear without waking up first, I can do a half hour walk before breakfast. I can do this. Who needs urgency anyway – time enough for that later. As the greeting card says (approximately), ‘she who stumbles along is still going faster than the person still sitting on the couch.’