How to Avoid Strangling your Housemates, Kids, or Partner While you Work from Home

I’ve worked from home for a long time, so I want to kick things off by offering a hearty welcome and congratulations! I absolutely love working from home -- I'm hoping to never work in an office again. My hope is that this newsletter helps you over the hurdles so you can enjoy the experience and its tiny commute time, the opportunity to take conference calls in your pajamas, and the chance to throw a load of laundry in when you need to stretch your legs.

So, let’s kick things off!

At some point, we’ve all worked with someone who seems impervious to interruptions and treats everyone else like they are too. And sometimes these co-workers drive us nuts, but we don’t have to live with them.

Except now you might, especially if you’ve got an 8-year-old.

Or maybe you and your smartphone are already your own worst enemy without the interference of anyone else.

So I want to start the week with some recommendations on rules and systems to set with yourself and members of your household so that you can concentrate to actually get some work done. We’ll talk about limiting interruptions and how to keep yourself focused, even in the age of distraction. Not every newsletter will be this long, but I’ve got quite a bit to share in this one!

For everyone (including yourself): Make an obvious, visual distinction for when you’re working or not

In an office, you generally assume someone is working when they’re at their desk. But what about when you’re sitting on the couch with your laptop*? How will people know if you’re working or just scrolling through Facebook?

To make it clear when you’re working and shouldn’t be interrupted, establish clear visual signals, such as:

  • Shut the door of the room you’re working in
  • Wear headphones, even if you keep the sound off
  • Sit in a special place in your house that you don’t normally sit in
  • Wear something ridiculous like a pair of bunny ears

Let everyone in your house know that these signals mean that you are working during that time. If something happens that isn’t an emergency, then they shouldn’t interrupt you. We can relax these rules later, but as every veteran teacher will tell you, start off strict so everyone knows you mean business.

Consider implementing these even if you live alone. It can be hard to draw boundaries around work when you’re working from home for an extended stretch. You’ll need extra signals to help draw mental boundaries between the working parts of your day and the leisure parts of your day.

*Note: I am not telling you not to work on your couch. Couches are a thousand times more comfortable than desk chairs. So go for it. Couches are one of the perks.

For people with kids: Establish an interruption budget

The age and independence level of your kids will impact how often they need (or think they need) to interrupt you -- even though you’ve closed the door to your office. Without a boundary, they will drive you nuts and drive up the household misery index. To help with that, establish an interruption budget. You’ll need to experiment to figure out what works for your kids, but you might start with a budget of one long interruption and two quick questions per day per kid -- while you’re working. Create some coupons that your kiddo can give you when they need to interrupt you. And give yourself the same interruption budget for interrupting their school work. It’s fair and respectful to establish a home culture of honoring everyone’s need for focus and quiet time.

If you have very literal kids, you will need to spell out events that override the need for using an interruption token. Things like medical emergencies or impending damage to your home. Also, set rules for what they are allowed to do without your permission.

Depending upon how your kid is wired, you could set the interruption budget a little higher than you think they’ll need and encourage them to save. If you have a great week with fewer interruptions, then treat the family to something special at the end of the week.

For people with kids: Help them learn how to self-manage

If your kids are working on school, talk to them about how important being able to concentrate is, for both of you.

Sit down with them and come up with strategies together on how they can tackle their work independently. Some examples include:

  • Spend some time each day writing out a plan for how to tackle their assignments and include some time blocking. Let them know that it’s normal to run into mental roadblocks -- it happens to grown-ups too. If possible, let them be an active partner in creating their schedule. They'll be happier about sticking to it and will learn invaluable self-management skills.
  • Write a quick note about what they’re stuck on so they can ask you later.
  • Make a note to come back to it later. After they’ve worked on something else, it might make sense.
  • If their brain is tired, take a short break and read a chapter of a book.

Don’t forget to include some social time for your kids in their schedule. Arrange an hour of Facetime with their friends. It will give you some space, and help them manage what is a stressful time for them.

As you plan your own work, try to set time blocks that are similar to the length of their classes. Research supports this as an effective strategy for adults too (see Pomodoro section below).

For people with older kids, partners, and roommates: Set guidelines

When my husband and I both started working from home, it took at least a year for us to figure out guidelines that kept us from snapping at each other because we were in the zone or under the gun to wrap up presentation planning when someone interrupted with a question about something completely unrelated. (Ask me how well I react to questions about the grocery list while I'm coding)

We finally came up with a couple of rules that helped immensely:

  • When interrupting during someone’s usual work hours, ALWAYS ask if it’s okay to interrupt.
  • Before interrupting someone, ask the question 'Would I call this person on the phone at work to ask this question'? (if the answer is no, it can wait until the next break)

Remember you can text and email each other. There is NO SHAME in texting people in the same house or even the same room. It’s a great tool for sharing whatever just popped into your head without interrupting your partner’s concentration. Younger kids can ‘text’ by slipping a note under your office door or setting a note on your desk.

For everyone: Pomodoro

Even if you live alone, are an introvert, and do brain work for a living, this introvert oasis might be rough. Most of us just aren’t accustomed to concentrating anymore. We haven’t been in quiet controlled environments that allow for it. And we’ve all got smartphones which drive most of us to distraction.

Let me introduce you to everyone’s new best friend: The Pomodoro.

The Pomodoro method was named after a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (yes, Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato). The method is simple. Set a timer for 25 minutes. During that 25 minutes focus completely on the work you INTEND to be working on. Give yourself a place to jot down stray thoughts that pop into your head during that time so that you can stay on task. When the 25 minutes is up, take a five minute break. Every 4-5 Pomodoros, take an extended break.

The exact minutes of each period aren't absolute. You can experiment to find out what length of time works for you. The important thing is to regularly take breaks.

Alternate between alone breaks (especially if anyone in your house is introverted) and together breaks. Get out of the house for a walk. Give your kids the chance to ask all the questions they’ve been saving up. Talk about what you’ve worked on in the past couple of hours. Try not to crack open social media during your breaks unless you’re up and moving around.

The break isn't just important because it gives you a chance to let your brain cells rest a little. The break is a REWARD to your brain for the increasingly excellent job it will do at concentrating. If you are struggling to take proper breaks, it's important to at least reward yourself in some form. If you're desperate, 3 M&Ms will do the trick.

Still reading?

Whew! You made it to the end. Like I said, many newsletters will be shorter, but this anti-interruption is foundational in keeping your houseold misery index low.

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