by Dene Dryden
This article was published in the Apr. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.
It’s dark in here. Let’s open up the blinds.
The sunlight reminds me that (when it gets much warmer) I can go outside and take a walk, let my hair air-dry, bike without fear of sliding on ice. It’s the dead of winter, January. A new start, but an awfully cold one. To me, the sun and its heat are happy things. In the middle of my hibernation, the sunlight also reminds me that I am in fact an actual person with responsibilities and identity.
The winter break between semesters is a true break — after some tumultuous holiday travel, I have almost a month of unabashed free time. No class. New job doesn’t start until January 14th. I have goals that I can accomplish (read five books!) but can slack off on with no repercussions (read 0.8 books). But without the usual structure of classes, work, required reading and writing, yoga classes, and conveniently seeing friends in those activities, it’s easy to drift. I’m easily cabin-fevered.
Self-motivation, for me, comes with some terms and conditions. First, you’ve got to have set deadlines — no, not ones you set. They must be set by other people, who rely on you to accomplish those tasks. Second, there tasks that you don’t have to do, but you should at some point — and the urge to work on a job application or next fall’s schedule can’t be planned; it must be spontaneous. Also, there’s no way you’re getting up at 9 a.m. on a Saturday to get your work “out of the way.” You require either sunlight or that second wind of motivation that hits like caffeine at about 11:45 p.m. Or 12:31. Depends on the moon.
The last caveat: don’t you dare think you’re accomplishing anything at home. This is what coffee shops and libraries are made for, stupid. (Except when the seats are full or the building is closed—this is the fine print).
These habits scare me when I think about my career as a nonfiction writer and journalist. Writing is flexible; you can do it anytime, anywhere with a pencil or free Wifi. So, naturally, freelance writing and reporting careers have become more common. They’re backup options if you can’t land a steady job. Do some copywriting here, a feature story there, maybe create some corporate promotional materials that shine with synergy and growth mindset tactics. Work from home.
Work from home?
Over my dead body.
My desk at work is in a corner. Corkboard stretches above my head adorned with birthday cards, sticky notes, a braided strand of yarn, a ticket stub, a sprig of sage. I have all the distractions I need there to excuse myself from working: coworkers who shout ear-perking jokes, unlimited queries from the depths of Google, a computer streaming trap music that evokes a flashback to an unpleasant fall at a nightclub — sticky floor memories are undoubtedly distracting. But on a good day, while the newsroom is moderately quiet, I’ll melt into my computer screen, writing with devout concentration.
My desk at home is also in a corner.
“When are you going to clean off your desk?” my partner asks. I sat at his desk to write because my laptop tragically passed the rainbow bridge at the ripe age of 13 months. Quitter. While I waited for my next computer to arrive, I used my partner’s desktop for all my computer-y needs.
“I mean, I know you need to use my computer now, but didn’t you say you were going to clean off your desk over break?”
I did say that. But I’ve been known to lie to myself. On multiple occasions I promised to cut back on sugar, to take fifteen minutes a day to read for leisure, to wash the sheets more often. My loyalty is a gift only to everyone else. Meanwhile, my desk is the catch-all flat surface for documents, mementos, and gloves. A set of helpful tools are lined up where the wood meets the wall, like my stapler and pencil cup. But then there are the cat’s veterinary records, class notes from last semester, a red gift bag I intend on reusing. If I were to clean this mess, the first step would be to find the desk itself again, buried under the ephemera.
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” I’d say. “I’ve done a lot today.”
The idea of primarily working at home, enclosed in the same space all day, grinds at me in a way I don’t fully understand. But I do know that the key to working at home is to have a designated workspace. A home office barricaded by mild blue walls, a window with a view so still it might as well be a painting. A door to let ambient noises in or keep the rollicking dogs out. Ideally the desk would have a large wingspan to accompany my auxiliary items, with the laptop front and center. Roomy shelves for trinkets and books. Drawers for papers and shit to forget about, opened again when it’s time to declutter. A chair that accommodates my various yogic sitting experiences. A space separate from the home with the comforts of home.
I think about the freelancers writing their days away, creating entire novels in their heads, cultivating a fresh design for a webpage they pocketed sixty dollars to fix. I think about the ones who live alone — the only witnesses to their internet-connected madness could be a pair of cats or some spangled snakes. How in the world can you manage responsibilities when the only person holding you accountable is the dog, and she only reminds you of your duties when she needs to pee?
Perhaps the physical space doesn’t matter much to other people. Maybe people who work from home are the same people who can fall asleep in a car anytime, anywhere, any position. The secret has to be self-motivation. Self-discipline. Self-organization.
A sense of self.
Denying that you have a problem is worse than the actual problem. A boiling-hot infection causes pain but denying its existence results in destruction. My excuses are myriad: Over break I don’t have deadlines. I can do it tomorrow. I’ll have time later. It’s cold out so I won’t go. I won’t work from home but leaving takes effort.
With every passing January day, I forgot who I was. Sure, I interacted with other human beings: I live with my partner, and I met up with friends as often as our off-work schedules aligned. But it’s so easy to forget: I’m a daughter. I’m a student. I’m an editor. I’m a rewards cardholder at my local grocery store. Who am I when I am not around other people, displacing those relationships that reinforce who I am to the world?
My isolated days can turn dark. Without those social roles and relationships shaping my actions, structure and schedule are cast wayside, but judgement remains. When I forgo washing my face, I have no one to blame but myself when my forehead is pockmarked with redness — negligent craters. When I realize I have not talked to Mom in several days, touching my phone to do anything else feels like treason. My laundry list and the laundry itself pile up. My chance for solitude, relaxation, and unbounded productivity is engulfed by my anxious anticipation for the future. The dark side of the moon is witnessed by no one but itself.
Surely there must be some benefits to working from home, some that are hard for me to see. For starters, working from home means you make your own rules. Time is an illusion. Business casual is a sham. Your eight-hour workday can start at 9 o’clock, noon, or later. Instead of annoying cubicle neighbors, your coworkers could be your lap cat, the beta fish, or a family of potted herbs munching on sunlight by that picturesque window (and maybe a spouse and kids, if you’re into that). When you want to be around others, the work can travel with you to the library, a coffee shop, or a park. And when you’re tired of faces, there’s a great workspace waiting at home. Lunch breaks might take four hours, or you might continue working during a bathroom break — something I assume is frowned upon in an office, but I’m no expert. You set your boundaries. You set your space. You can ensure that the “office” coffee pot is soaped and scrubbed at the end of each day. Customization is what sells the home-work life.
Another perk: When you successfully work from home, you know how much you can actually achieve.
About a year ago, a winter break before the last, I worked from home. I tasked myself with updating the Collegian student newspaper’s style guide, as it had not undergone a revision in eight years. As the publication’s copyeditor, I had run into many problems and inconsistencies while using that resource. So it was time for an upgrade. Sitting at my partner’s desk again, this time in a different house, I armed myself with caffeine and dollar store highlighters and plunged into deep revision. I adjusted for the discomforts, made my folded leg a support beam in that lopsided swivel chair. A piece of scratch paper littered with my mock cursive, each task struck through in its completion. I was my own project manager for something not at all necessary, but I slayed each devil in the details of the work: adding new entries, updating entries, rectifying typos, banishing outdated entries like pouring bad milk down the sink. Flipping pages dried my hands, but who cared? I was soaking up that energy of true motivation.
My name. Spring 2018. The black-inked cover of the style guide was marked again. For me, the new contributor line on the cover marked a personal project achieved. I think it all took about twenty hours for over 200 pages of material containing at least thirty new entries. All from home — or, at least, a place familiar enough to me to consider a home.
I still have my motivation problem. Though the style guide is an example that shows I can set deadlines and goals for myself, the everyday grind begs to differ. Perhaps working from home seems too idealistic; it requires rigorous organization, dedication, and focus that comes only from the gut. Maybe it’s burnout culture — my millennial mind grows subconsciously tired of this system that begs me to take my work home after the school day proper, my couch becoming a vessel for rushed Latin study and leisurely Netflix viewings that carry a tinge of guilt because I’m not working hard enough. Or again, maybe it’s the moon.
As the blinds swivel open, sunlight bathes the dining table. The cat curves her back to the sky, yellow eyes adjusting to the muted sun. There’s a coffee cup on the counter from yesterday — the dried residue inside forms a crater. A negligent act. A byproduct of my self-critical mind. How to work from home isn’t only a dilemma of my professional sensibilities — it’s the first knot in a net that binds me. Life isn’t perfect (but it could be?). And it shouldn’t be (but could it?).
I start a new pot of coffee. Look out to the daylight. Swallow what I know to be true. What I should do. What I must do to retain that sense of self. Because the moon will come again. ~