How to work from home and remain sane: my 3 years' aching experience
Updated: Mar 2
3 things I learnt on how not to get insane while working from home
Working from home is great. I can do the laundry multiple times a day, I always have all the unfinished home projects I started and never finished at sight, and I can wear sweatpants forever and look awful while no one sees me. I’m joking. Or not.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a big fan of flexible working, but as a freelance copywriter and transcreator with no office to return to after I’ve been laid off during the pandemic, I found myself struggling with a new routine, so I thought to share how I try to work from home and remain sane according to my 3 years experience.
1. Redundancy made me realise how resilient I am
In 2020, after 10 years as a nine-to-five employee, I was made redundant and I started working as a freelancer during the nights and during my toddler’s nap times, as childcare had been shut down. I was desperate to work. I needed to prove to myself that a redundancy letter wasn’t defining the professional I was.
So I started spreading the voice I was available and then work just came, and never stopped since. Nice projects, and boring ones. Some repetitive stuff, some challenging. Some that I was already able to master, some that required some a lot of learning. At some point, I even had to start saying “no” to a few jobs. I regret none of my refusals.
What I regret is that I lived in leggings and sad T-shirts. No make-up, and don’t even get me started with hair. Which is ok, I was thinking: it’s just temporary. At some point, I will go back to normal life. Except I had no idea when and what it would mean.
My first year of freelancing meant no time for myself, a stingy sense of guilt for pretty much everything, a few many strategic mistakes, wrong quotes, but also a lot of learning and motivation. I was proving to myself I was able to survive and provide for my needs and my family. This gave work new meaning. A healthy one.
2. Learning to swim again
Over the second year, I became more confident and I realized I could allow myself to breathe. It felt like my husband and I have been living with a half-pulled handbrake - what if there’s another pandemic or a war, or who knows what? We started to appreciate the possibilities we had again: the relative freedom to travel, make a few plans, see friends and raise our child in a community and not in an isolated household anymore. We started swimming again, and not just staying afloat.
As we started looking forward, I realized there was a part of me that was still looking backwards, believing I would have gone back to my old office at some point, I would have worked with my former colleagues again, I would have been standing at the coffee machine having that pointless small talk I’ve always hated but was also missing.
I understood I hadn't had the time to grieve the loss of my old job, and there has been no ritual to end it. As it happened during the pandemic, I never had that last walk away from the building, the tearful hugs with the colleagues, or the awkward “goodbye” cards.
I wasn’t acting like my freelance job was there to stay. I wasn’t making myself comfortable with it. So I made a list of all the things that made me feel my work was only temporary. And for each of them, I tried to make amends in my daily life, and this is how this third year is going.
I am worth dressing up
If this sounds obvious, believe me, it’s not. Hygiene must be taken for granted, but I couldn’t see why waste time and money to look put together if no one was seeing me. However, paraphrasing Marie Kondo, if you always wear sweatpants you became a sweatpants person. Reading The curated closet by Anushka Rees made me realize I was feeling discomfort all day because of this, and I wanted to feel I was worthy of the effort again.
I need to get out
I recently started pretending I have an office 3 days a week. I tell my family: “I'm going to the office tomorrow”, so it feels like a commitment. Sometimes it’s a café, sometimes it’s the library, sometimes it’s the waiting area at the local pool or the yoga studio. Getting out helps me see people, my area, and posters of local events, and I realize things happen. There’s life after Covid. There’s life besides being a parent. There’s life outside of my laptop.
Also, I learned a short commute is a sanity-saver. It’s a good way to buffer between work and home, ideally walking while listening to music, a podcast, a walking meditation playlist, or just listening to the sounds around me. On the days I don’t leave home, I try to have short walks before and after work, to trick my brain and get it cleaned up. Sounds silly? Try it and then tell me.
The shop’s opening times
A useful suggestion for managing a freelancer’s time is to pin a poster on the wall next to your working space, declaring your working hours. You make it clear for others, but mostly you make it clear for yourself. Do you think you don't need it?
According to Chiara Battaglioni, author of the Italian podcast Work Better, when we do the laundry during our working hours, it’s because we feel we want to accomplish something immediately, and home chores do the job, but at the end of the day, this blurs the boundaries and make us feel confused. This opened my eyes: when I work tidy and separate work-time from home-time, I feel more collected and I actually accomplish more of the things that are important to me - turns out, folding laundry is not that important to me. Setting time-blocks for work as well as for other activities helps me save quality time for others (of for myself): once I’m done with work, I’m done.
I am not alone
I am lucky enough to have found a Mastermind group of freelance women that I call “my colleagues” or “the anonymous freelancers”. We connect for 90 minutes a week, and each of us can book a slot beforehand and pose a question, asking for feedback or opinions. We all do different jobs, but we all share the same need to feel supported, to be part of a group that thinks alike and has a similar attitude to work. Freelancing may feel very lonely, but it can be otherwise.
3. Life is a work
An old wise friend of mine told me once that work is part of the work of life: and life is about working every day to grow and become our true selves. Now that I am a freelancer, I’m starting to understand this. Everything I do, anyway I spend my time, can serve the purpose to grow myself. This has freed me a lot: work is only one part of the path. I am whole as a person, and I have many needs, and many aspects I want and need to take care of and improve.
If I neglect either my health, my family, or my need for cultivating my brain and spiritual life, I know I am not walking towards my true self. As I understood this, I started to feel free from the pressure to work for the sake of it or to identify my worth with the hours I worked, or with my salary (well, I’m working on it).
I am not sure if I would go back to being a 9 to 5 employee but at the same time, I’m sure I would never go back to working from home without these habits I learned and trying to implement every single day. Every time I neglect them, my body or mind protests and begs me to go back to these learnings. Because my previous life will never be back. This is my “new normal”, and I discovered that making it work suits me very well. Which is a shy, prudent, and hesitant way to say it makes me happy.