Part-time annual-leave – an experiment in WFH

Working from home is no doubt an advantage for me (as well as my employers). When I think of the primary advantages of working from home for me it comes down to one single ability: the ability to *turn things off* – the meetings, the phone, the email, the cups of tea and the general disturbances you get at an office (not that I don’t love the office for the same reasons – and enjoy creating my own set of general disturbances at the office to make things happen).

WFH I am able to wake up at 7am, leisurely begin my working day by emailing my bosses the three *real tasks* I am going to achieve for the day (email does not count as a “real” task and I usually only get two real tasks done per day, e.g. writing a briefing paper, creating a presentation or creating an event agenda are each “real tasks” for me). I start the day out with an espresso and do an hour of email (I’ve started timing myself so as not to go over this hour of email if it can be helped). I usually celebrate this small victory of clearing my email box with a cup of tea and five minutes on the balcony overlooking the river to try and slow my brain down before going into the first real task. My goal is to finish that first essential task of the day by lunch time, which I try and have early at Noon or 12.30. After lunch I try and get the second task done before both my brain and computer start to experience bit-wrought. If it is a good day then I try and start in on the third task. I mostly view this third task as more of a reminder than a “to do” as it is really about prepping the third task of the day to eventually become a first task of the day, I often find that taking some time to just think about this third task is the essential part before committing anything by typing it down, often I dream about this third task and in the morning have the thing in my mind’s eye ready to go. Usually the afternoon gets filled up with checking email once again and also making phone/skype calls.  More and more I am relying on the phone to make things happen, in the same way going into the office can make things happen internally to the organisation, it has become essential to use the phone to make things happen externally to the organisation (especially since most of my work is done across dozens of organisations). I’ve been trying more to stop everything at 5pm so I can finish all the drafts and make any additional notes on the day by 6pm, though often this drifts into closing down things after dinner, and sometime late into the night. Yes sometimes til 10pm… 11pm… ok the occasional midnight or 1am. Ok, so here is where there is a problem obviously, and indeed in the same way that I think there are incredible advantages to WFH, there are also very dangerous reprocusions.

Accordingly, where the primary advantage of WFH is being able to turn off things (and create a pattern for getting things done), the primary dis-advantage is *not being able to turn yourself off*. In short, WFH easily results in forgetting how to separate your private life from your working life. This is not an easy problem to solve as it has to do with two problems that are in need of solving IMHO.

First is the working space. By having your office at home it is always there to just quickly sit down and check a couple more emails. For a long time I’ve wanted a place where I could make a shed office (and not because it is geek chic!), where there would at least be a slight hurdle to sitting down and checking another email in between this or that. Currently I have my office in a dedicated home office room but this is not really a solution (other than the fact that having a computer in the same room as where you sleep is really bad – I’ve learned this the hard way). However, I do wish I could set the office door to lock at a certain time or something to help keep me from just popping in to finish one last email hence having the office-shed in the garden… comments/suggestions welcome.

The other primary problem is time, time disappears when you are working from home in your own little bubble. If it was not for the sun I would honestly loose track all together and as we approach the winter dark season this is really a problem as after 4pm, I just don’t pay attention to time. I’ve tried timers and automated alarms but for me this is more than just the “actual” time, rather it is the perception and pattern I get myself into with wanting to achieve things. If I can’t achieve at least two tasks I get frustrated, which in turn gets me stressed. I’m not willing to give up my task to do list each morning as I like to achieve things and I like the excitement of driving things forward and getting them done (evolutionary work-o-holic). So in essence this is more a problem about the pace of things and the patterns we create that put us in this drum beat pattern of getting things done. Switching off that internal clock and drum beat of “get it done…get it done… get it done…get it done” is not an easy switch to flick off!

So I’ve identified the two problems, but what about the solutions?! I’ve yet to figure out how to slow my brain down other than a full blown holiday. Getting away for a weeks holiday usually re-starts and re-boots that internal clock so that I can once again feel a normal pace and time for things rather than the “get it done…get it done” drum beat. However, more and more in taking these week holidays I feel the stress of coming back to a week’s unread email to be unbearable. Last time I came back to about five-hundred emails, which while not as bad as some (I use several filters and GTD methods to keep things somewhat manageable) is still more tasks being created than the three to-do items I create for myself each day.

To try and hypothesise a solution to the latter, I’ve tried a little experiment this week by taking part-time (p/t) annual-leave (a/l). In short, I worked the first half of the morning and took the afternoon off (which my bosses kindly agreed to). What has this achieved? Well I do feel I have re-booted somewhat (though it took til Friday to get there (the litmus test is if I wake up after 8am on my own, rather than hoping right out of bed at 7am). I’ve also managed to keep the email box level and even partially get one task done per day. So this experiment is not a complete success but perhaps worth considering as one of the holidays I should take each year? It might work better if I did two weeks of p/t a/l – which of course would only equal one week of F/T leave?

In short, this post is really more of a use case than a solution and I am still looking for feedback, so please do leave some comments if you have further thoughts. I think the most important innovation space is our own personal psychology and how we shift our thinking to actually make our own lives more productive. Innovation starts at home.

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~ by dfflanders on September 24, 2010.

6 Responses to “Part-time annual-leave – an experiment in WFH”

  1. Well i can empathise with that post David, and interesting to see how this week’s experiment has worked out. I suppose i’d slightly worry that having half days blurred the work/life boundary even more. Sometimes my saturdays are a bit like your half days this week, and i don’t really want them to be. Anyway, the search for that work/life balance continues..

  2. Just started working at home for my last few weeks before going on maternity leave and trying to figure out the right routine for me so this is really interesting – thank you! Obviously, it’s short-term so I haven’t put too much effort into my ‘office’ and getting back ache when sitting at a computer for too long is a good, if not recommended, way to make sure you don’t work late into the night (although I also find Jon coming home tends to make me realise that I should stop working!)

  3. http://www.shedworking.co.uk for more information on shed offices

  4. Hi David, as you know, I work from home on a daily basis. I’ve found (at least for me), the best way to separate my work life from home life is to actually have separate computers (or accounts on the same computer for each). At 5pm (or whenever I’ve finished my official work hours for that day), I actually turn off my work computer. It doesn’t get turned back on until the next morning. For me, that’s enough of a boundary to checking my work email or doing one last task. If you only have one primary computer/laptop, you may be able to achieve the same thing by using separate accts for personal stuff vs. work stuff (and logoff of your work acct at the end of the day). Sure, you could still find yourself wanting to check your work email from your personal computer/acct. But, at least for me, this act of separation helps to discourage work time eating into my evening/personal time (and as much as possible I force myself to not check my work email after I’ve shutdown my work machine).

    As for the “time disappearing” problem, I find dinnertime or spouse arriving home as a good “alarm”. Once it’s dinner time, or my wife has arrived home, that’s a sign I either need to be completely off the work computer or I need to finish up very quickly. If you are consistently getting frustrated with not having achieved one or more tasks by the time it’s time to logoff, it sounds like you may be making your daily task list too large (might be time for a reanalysis of what really is achievable in your average day). There are surely days I don’t make it through what I wanted to at the start of the day. But, in those cases I just write myself a note on where to start off the next morning, and make that unfinished task top priority the next day.

  5. This reminded me of these pictures: http://acidcow.com/fun/12717-why-working-from-home-is-awesome-and-horrible-1.html
    Scroll Down to “Loss of Regimen”.

  6. Working from home eliminates so many pesky little tasks that do nothing but take up your time. Working from you realise how quickly you are able to accomplish things that took you the whole day at work.

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