I am blessed to have friends from all walks of life who work in myriad careers. They shared a common denominator. In the past, not a single one of them has sought my advice about how to do their jobs. Until now. You see, I have been working at home as a writer for 25 years.
As a middle child, I naturally shy away from telling anyone how to do anything, ever. In the past, giving advice was typically followed by the receiver throwing a blunt object in my direction or hitting me. But, I’ve let all of that go. Finally, it’s my moment to be of some use, and I’m going to seize it to help you shine.
Here are my five rules for working at home and thriving. If you follow these tips, you’ll probably end up with a raise by the end of the pandemic.
Design the office.
Set up an area in your home just for work. It can be anywhere in your home, but the area must duplicate, in some fashion, the office you currently are banned from—so that typically means you require a surface, a chair, a lamp and supplies.
You are not to eat on this surface, or sort laundry upon it or order from home shopping. You are to work and work only in the designated space. I wrote 17 books out of Michael Patrick King’s laundry room. Most of those novels turned out well despite the contact high I got from the bleach.
Imagine the fun I had when I showed visitors the office and I watched their faces fall when they saw the grandeur. I love a fancy office, and there are plenty of writers who have them. I never did, but still managed to create opulence here and there using my imagination.
Even if you live in one room (and I have), you must carve out a workspace within it. The novelist and comedian Bill Scheft converted a large closet in his apartment to create his sacred space. I don’t recommend the bed as home office for 99.9% of us.
Only author Sister Karol Jackowski has pulled that one off, because she spent decades of service in the convent and has given herself permission to work from her bed. For all the nuns out there, as far as I’m concerned—you work however and wherever you choose. Go with God! Everybody else: Stick to one area.
No television, radio or entertainment during your allotted work hours. Do not be tempted to play music. Eat only during your lunch and breaks (see below.) This is work time, not hooky. This is a chance for you to be the valedictorian of your job. Be a nerd for your company.
Make personal phone calls after 5 p.m. More time is eaten up during the workday hearing the complaints, beefs, and love problems of friends and relatives than it is by work. In general, and this is important, people believe if you work at home, you’re not actually working. You know better, and you don’t need to discuss it with your friends. Work during work hours. When the workday is done, the time is all yours.
Continue to look the part.
Dress like Brad Pitt is coming to the office. For you younger women, think Timothée Chalamet. That’s right, put on lipstick, makeup, a simple outfit and, most importantly, shoes. When you wear shoes, and not fluffy slippers, you are able to work more efficiently and stay focused. Fluffy slippers are footwear that leads to napping and bad sex, neither of which should be a part of your work day.
Self-respect begins with style, and style is ultimately a reflection of your taste. If you want to wear sweats, get a job as a trainer or join the Denver Nuggets when this is over. Everybody else: Dress for the home office. You will take yourself seriously and your productivity will soar.
Watch the clock.
Honor time. You will be saving at least two hours a day (for some folks, more!) by adding the time you normally use to commute to and from your place of employment, to your new work-at-home schedule. This commute-less career saves you time, energy anxiety and gas. For you mass transit users, it saves you train and bus fare.
Now that you have two extra hours in the workday, you will be better able to serve your boss’ needs, and increase your company’s profitability. You might consider taking the first hour of the day to think. Be creative. Invent. Take the half hour you normally need to find a parking space to imagine ways to do your job better, or come up with ways to make your company more profitable. You might even invent a product that launches you out of your current position. You’ll have two extra hours in the day to figure it out.
For those with children at home, here’s your alternative for those two hours. Use the infant rule: When they nap, you nap. Get up an hour ahead of them to work. Establish rules. Kids actually love them. Create a similar work space for your children. My daughter liked the space under my desk. When I had business calls and skypes, we had a no noise signal. They’re children, but they know how to follow instructions at school. Stick to those during business hours at home.
Take lunch plus two.
Replenish your body and renew your energy. You must take lunch and two breaks. I read somewhere that President John F. Kennedy had soup and tea for lunch. He was slim and had a good head of hair, so I follow his routine. The breadless lunch gives me an afternoon boost that I haven’t had since I saw Rob Lowe play the sax in “St. Elmo’s Fire” at the two-fer movie matinee in Times Square when he and I were young.
Also, best if you follow the advice of my grandmother Lucia Bonicelli, who worked for 50 years out of her street-level shoe shop in Chisholm, Minn. Take two short breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, no matter the weather. A blizzard on the Iron Range did not deter her from putting on a coat, hat and gloves and searching the sky for the sun. Her other tip: The afternoon snack should be unsalted almonds.
Professional accountability is key.
Report in. Stay close to your boss digitally. Reach out to her every day and always at day’s end with all you have accomplished. Begin the email with: I know you’re swamped, here’s where we are on the such and such account. No need to reply. If you do your work, do it consistently and well from home, and check in with her, who knows? She might buy you a car. At the very least, she will remember you come raise and promotion time! Writers can call their agents and weep. Nothing new there.
If you use Skype, Zoom and other manners of connection, dress for the camera, at least from the waist up. Shoes on. And, give encouragement. Make a sign with an aphorism to encourage team spirit. Hold it up when you’re called upon. Community is connection. “We are Family” is a good one, for starters.
Final thoughts from my mother and grandmother.
Viola Trigiani, my grandmother, believed most of the world’s problems and any skin condition could be solved by a good hand-washing with scalding hot water and Fels Naptha soap. She cured me of the mumps with this regimen in the summer of 1974.
If you wash your hands, you won’t be wringing them.
Ida Bonicelli Trigiani, my mother, used to say, “Don’t touch everything!” This, too, is good advice and includes people and their parts. (Sorry those who rely on popular dating apps. During this scourge, take a break. It will make you mysterious and desirable and he’ll never know you’re a hypochondriac).
Here’s how I see it. There are two themes in life: love and work. If they can stop kissing in Italy, the land of amore (and trust me, during Lent this is a sacrifice) we can maintain a comfortable distance from one another in love and work until this thing is over.
My mother had another old saw: “Charity begins at home.” She was right, but these days she would add … so does your brilliant career.