PhDiary #6: How I Work at Home Effectively

Often when we talk about the loneliness of postgraduate study, we focus on the emotional side of things. It is so important we address issues of isolation in academia, but the current reality of the situation means that remedies such as “integrate more into faculty life”, “develop a community of peers” and “spend time in coffee shops” only go so far to resolve the problem.

For most of us, spending a substantial amount of time alone at home is somewhat of a necessity: travelling to the library costs money, cappuccinos cost (a lot!) of money and – dare I say it – academics have priorities at home as well as at work. One of the oft-cited perks of PhDs and precarity is that one is in charge of their daily routine; however, a lack of structure is one of the oft-cited woes. I’m not a parent yet, but I can only imagine how my experience of developing a work schedule at home is only the very tip of the iceberg for those who balance childcare and a career.

With all that said, I thought I’d offer my advice of the methods I have tried and tested to make working alone, and specifically working from home, work for me.

  • Recognise procrastination/inefficiency

Gone are the days when it was cool to be a #girlboss working every hour of the day. Instead, “working smarter not harder” is very much in vogue, and for good reason. Without the constraints of a 9-5pm work schedule, a PhD is a somewhat unique opportunity to develop a daily routine that is almost exclusively shaped around your own habits and preferences. A whole day spent at your desk isn’t necessarily a day well spent if half of that time is on Facebook. I’ve found trying to remain mindful of how I’m spending each portion of my day has helped me to design a work routine that suits my attention span. I realised I nearly never do anything useful in the first hour of my day, so why did I used to beat myself up for not leaping into my spin-y chair at 8.30am to power through my emails? Rather than interrupting my peak productivity hours in the early evening to go and work out, I’ve now changed up my routine. I leave the first 90 minutes of my day free to exercise (or to do any other more pleasant task like a craft activity, some baking or a phone call with my Grandad). I’d once have left these sort of activities for the evenings, but now I let my studies flow on until a little later in the day when I’m often on a natural roll.

  • Leave the house

There’s not a huge amount to say about this one. All I can tell you is that I always work better if I leave the house at some point in the day. One of the real dangers of working from home is that a whole day can go by without me having spoken to another soul, or without having escaped the four walls I also sleep, eat and rest within. I’ve learnt to be a lot better at recognising cabin fever and quickly curbing its effects by putting my headphones in, trainers on and finding an excuse to pop to the shops/post box/neighbour’s house or, indeed, to simply enjoy the fresh air and take in the season. It is amazing what a blast of breeze and a boost of Vitamin D can do!

  • #remoteretreat

Accountability when I’m home alone is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. 2019 was the year I discovered #remoteretreat, a structured day of work that anybody can take part in using Twitter. Search the hashtag to see if anybody is leading a session (or why not lead your own?) and join in for either the whole day or just a part of it. Everyone shares their aims and objectives then checks in at regular intervals to let everyone know how its going and to show solidarity…there’s even a scheduled pause for to leave your desk to stretch your legs or exercise as suits you.

  • Exercise

I’ve hinted at this in what I’ve said already, but exercise definitely deserves a category of its own. The laptop life of a researcher is often a sedentary one, and this is certainly the case for me. There’s of course a health aspect to keeping my body moving on a regular basis, but the impact that exercise can have on my working day is acute. For one, a gym class, run or bike ride forces me out of the house (see above). For another, it punctuates a day that is otherwise unstructured. More fundamentally, committing to an activity that is purely for the benefit of my own well-being is an important reminder to myself that I am worthy of that time and space. I think this is particularly so given that my home is also my place of work. Chez moi there is no physical separation in my day between my professional identity and my domestic one…the laundry can feel like a pressing priority, so prioritising something that helps me escape the bubble (the bubbles in the washing machine…get it!) can be extremely helpful. Endorphins aren’t to be underrated, either!

  • Environment

Related to this idea of separating myself from the domestic sphere in order to do my best work is the issue of my working environment. I am lucky enough that our flat has a second bedroom, which my boyfriend and I have set up as a shared office. I have come to view keeping the room tidy – and thus ready for work – as a way of signalling to myself, and others, that my research is important; the rest of my house may be a tip, but my desk is a professional perch. For this reason, my boyfriend and I have had conversations over the years about how we share the space. During working hours, we promise not to use our computers to for fun so as not to distract the other, if I am going to work late one evening, I will ask whether I might have the space to myself as a one-off favour. Learning and honouring these preferences can make a big difference. I know working on my sofa isn’t conducive to a productive day and I know looking at the clock at 5pm and realising I haven’t cleaned my teeth never feels great. I dress for the day (elasticated waistband completely acceptable), perhaps light a candle, prepare my desk and turn on a podcast. These little rituals put me in the right state of mind.

  • FLOW

There’s a joyful state of being that is often described as flow. You may have experienced it when you’re just in. the. zone. with your work, blinkers on, no sense of time passing. I long for those bursts of content productivity, but it sometimes feels like those periods of time are gifts from the gods and, thus, beyond my control. There’s maybe a degree of truth to that, but I have definitely found that all of the things that I’ve discussed so far can contribute to me reaching a state of flow. There are articles across the Internet like this one from Trello and this one from Forbes that advise about how to maximise your productivity, which I definitely find handy. Personally,  my main piece of advice would be to try and take note of moments of flow in your life and the conditions that you think catalysed them. Be honest with yourself; even if you don’t like the library, is it there that you do your best work? Should you turn off Netflix in the background as you write (guilty!)? For me things as small as ensuring I arrive at my desk with lip balm, water, a hair band and my laptop charger will guarantee I remain there undistracted for far longer than I otherwise would.