For anyone who's used to working in a standard office with annoying coworkers in the cubicle next door and a water cooler to go chit chat at when you need to stretch your legs, working from home may seem like one of those Monkey's Paw wishes. It's great at first, but then come distractions, and loneliness, and a completely warped sense of time. Believe me, I know. I've been there.
It's an adjustment I had to make 18 months ago when I came on full-time at Android Central, and while it'll never be perfect, there are plenty of tools out there that can help you stay focused, productive, and most importantly — sane.
Put your Bluetooth speaker across the room
While active noise-canceling headphones can help you block out the giants living in the unit upstairs, you probably don't want to wear headphones all day every day when you're the only one home. When pairing up and playing music from a Bluetooth speaker, though, resist the urge to put the speaker right next to you or your computer.
Putting the speaker nearby increases the likelihood of listening at too high a volume, especially when trying to block out noise from the street or your neighbors. When the sound of your music is close, you also have more of a tendency to focus on it, whereas setting it across from your desk and letting the sound fill your makeshift office is easier to keep it in the background.
If you're looking for good "background" music to get you through the day if your usual music pulls you out of your work too often, take a page from the experts. Theme parks like Disneyland and Universal build area music to help immerse guests it their worlds without drawing too much attention to themselves, and whether you need something graceful, ethereal, magical, retro-futuristic, or just plain nostalgic, there's an area loop out there for everyone. There are also a few loops that are great for naps if you need something to calm you down from a particularly manic day.
Activity is key
Get up once one every 1-2 hours
I know that when you get into a groove, we generally just want to get a task done and be done with it, but getting up and just walking from one end of the house to the other, refilling your water, and petting the cat can be very useful. It helps keep your body from cramping up, the activity helps your mind avoid getting stuck in a rut, and the more active you stay while in isolation, the better the chances are of you keeping healthy and happy.
My breaks usually consist of me getting up and dancing along to a song or two that come up in my YouTube Music mixtape, but doing a few quick lunges, planks, or sit-ups can help you avoid feeling cooped up and renew your energy so you can keep chugging along with your work. If you have a Nintendo Switch, Ring Fit can be a good 20-minute workout break.
If you're the type to get sucked into your research — or Reddit while you were supposed to be doing research — consider grabbing yourself a smartwatch. My Samsung Galaxy Watch Active reminds me to get up if it notices that I haven't stood up in an hour.
Disney won't distract if you want the TV on
I'll confess, there are times that just having music on isn't as helpful as having on the original background noise of the American living room: the TV. TVs and the plethora of streaming services available on them can be very, very handy while you're trying to get work done, but there are a couple of rules you'll generally want to follow:
- Reruns only. If you start a show you've never watched before, chances are either the show absolutely sucks or it's going to suck you in and work will grind to a halt. You want something where you already know what happens, has some good one-liners or gags to help keep your spirits up, and where when you tune out the film, you won't be lost or completely pulled out of your work when a big scene cuts through the fog.
- The longer, the better. I honestly prefer to rewatch my favorite movies when working because 1.5-2 hours is a good block of time between snack/exercise breaks, and that block of time still allows me to get a good amount of work done either researching, writing, or updating. "Hour-long" episodes are okay for busy work so long as autoplay is on and you're mostly tuning them out, but "half-hour" episodes are only 22 minutes, and those are a big rapid-fire for background noise since you'll get credits and main theme every 20 minutes.
- Listen, don't watch. When trying to figure out what show or film you might want to work through, my general rule of thumb is that if I can follow what's going on with my eyes closed, it's an excellent film to work through. The TV screen is only there for me to look at when I lose my train of thought or need a momentary break to let my brain figure out a roadblock.
If you're home with the kids — or are just a child of the 90s, like me — Disney movies are typically pretty great to have on as background noise. There's a song about every half hour, there's usually about three jokes/quotes a scene adults will appreciate more than the kids, and as a bonus, you can ask your kids if you tune out and miss anything important.
Drink early and often
Just because you're not running around an actual office building doesn't mean you don't need to stay properly watered. I know that being at home, the temptation to grab a Coke out of the fridge instead of water is going to be strong, but being cooped up at home, water is better for you and should help you avoid getting jittery the way the Coke I just finished is making me feel.
Water is a beautiful necessity of life, and while room temperature water doesn't always taste the greatest, ice cold water is amazing (except for the fact that it tends to drip condensation all over your desk). This is why insulated tumblers like YETI and RTIC have been very, very popular over the last few years.
I supplement my RTIC with a collection of Disney Parks insulated souvenir mugs — because, really, why not add some cuteness to my day? — but YETI and RTIC insulated metal tumblers will keep drinks cold far, far longer. And you can always decorate them with some stickers or decals if you want to add some personality to it.
Keep three snack types nearby at all times
Snacks are a vital part of work no matter where you are — I had a whole cooler dedicated to my snacks in my control room at the TV station — because you're not you when you're hungry, and your work will suffer if your concentration and your blood sugar tank while working. Cravings come and go, but there are three snack types that you absolutely must have at all times:
- Sweet: Sometimes you need a quick hit of energy, and that's when it's time to give in to the siren song of sugar. Graham cracker snacks and chocolate-chip cookies (fresh-baked, since you're stuck at home) are great options, but I also keep a medium jar of Runts on a shelf near my workspace so I can pop a couple if I just need a quick hit while I finish an article.
- Salty: Pretzels are a frequent snack for me because the combination of crunchy and salty is addictive, and that's because salt is something that our body craves just like sugar. And like sugar, a little salt is good, but you won't want to overdo it.
- Healthy: Remember that we're all stuck in here because we're trying to not get sick? Healthy snacks like fresh fruit, peanut butter crackers, or maybe a little jerky for protein will help fill you up more than chips and candy, and they'll help you keep up on the nutrients your bods needs.
By having these close by, it's easy to quickly grab the snack you need and get back to work instead of wandering into the kitchen, poking around looking for what you actually have to eat, what would sate your craving, and then getting distracted doing the dishes, making a grocery list, or getting an early start on dinner.
Set reminders for meals — really
When you finally get in a groove while working from home, it's very easy to lose track of time and forget to stop for meals since there's no mass exodus from the office at 5-7 PM. I am absolutely horrible about forgetting meals, which is bad because when you forget to eat, you tend to be a distracted mess instead of a focused machine.
So, since I have several smart speakers throughout my home, I set a Google Assistant Routine to run shortly after 1 PM so that if I'm reminded to eat if I haven't already — and reminded to take another quick break if I ate lunch early.
Google Assistant/Alexa Routines can speak out a reminder for you, turn on the lights in case you don't hear it over the music in your headphones, and hundreds more fun things. My lunch routine turns on the living room lights, my dinner routine dims the living room lights, and my bedtime routine turns the lights off, which has been quite helpful in keeping me fed and happy when days and days of isolation at home start making me a little bit loopy.
Google Nest Mini ($50 at Best Buy)
Get all the benefits of Google Assistant for controlling your smart home, including routines, in a compact package that fits in any home office.
Echo Dot with Clock ($60 at Amazon)
Having an easy-to-see clock on the front is really, really useful, so if you're more of an Alexa fan, this is the smart speaker for you.
LIFX Mini Color ($37 at Amazon)
You don't need a hub to control LIFX bulbs via Assistant/Alexa/Cortana, and the smaller frame helps it fit in a wider array of lamps and ceiling fixtures.
What helps you work from home?
I know that there are tons of other items that can be used to elevate the work from home experience — my Uniqlo Disney wearable blanket was an absolute godsend during Black Friday, but they're completely sold out — but I'm always looking for more. I still need a worthy lap desk to replace the discontinued Brookstone model I left in Texas, and while my IKEA Standing Desk has served me very well, I know sitting on my reupholstered bar stools is terrible for my back.
So, what are you using right now that works? What are you hoping to replace or augment as you get used to the glorious burden of building a proper work-from-home setup?
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