15 Things I’ve Learned After Weeks of Working From Home

15 Things I’ve Learned After Weeks of Working From Home

By Duncan Nielsen / Photos by Margaret Austin Photography
There’s virtue to be found within four walls. Ho-hum activities are now the highlights of the week, and a fastidious routine helps me find solid ground.

At the beginning of March, things were rocky. Under San Francisco’s shelter in place order, each day felt like a mashup of Groundhog Day and Contagion. Repetition saddled with fear of the unknown often left me and my wife feeling stuck and hopeless, although our troubles paled in comparison to those in real danger.

Just as Bill Murray’s weatherman turns a curse into a gift, a shift in perspective has shown us the virtues of a life lived mostly between four walls. Here are a few things I’ve learned, and a few things that have changed over so many weeks spent at home.

Our Home Is a Ship

Life is a boat at sea, and my wife Margaret, my dog, and I are its crew. It stays righted when we keep morale high—and we do that largely by organizing, dreaming of future plans, and tending to projects around the house. The dishes are endless, but washing them nets a wink of achievement and some small satisfaction. We’ve become better at transitioning between spaces. Interestingly, we’re more tolerant and accepting of the occasional mess.

Anxiety Can Be Channeled Into Wellness

Liberal levels of alcohol consumption kicked off the first couple weeks of quarantine. We felt rudderless amidst the initial adjustment, especially as Margaret’s work as a photographer transitioned from on-site shoots to home studio ones. But as we accepted that working from home may last a long while, our tenacity for booze has recalibrated into a balanced self-care routine. For now at least, we’re trying some tips on boozeless cocktails from master mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr. Lyan.

Some citrus, sparkling water, and bitters hits the spot when alcohol gets old.

Meal Planning Is the Main Event

Meals were always something to look forward to, but now they meter each day. There’s a new level of anticipation that’s made them a favorite conversation topic. We’ve become better cooks, care more deeply about our food (whether it’s delicious trashy to-go pizza, a new ramen recipe, or spring onions from the farmers’ market). We keep Dominique Crenn’s Metamorphosis of Taste on hand, and, with extra time for meal prep, the sous vide cooker is seeing a lot of use. We’ve also supported our favorite restaurants by taking some meals to-go, but it’s hard to gauge if our orders put the health of workers or the public at greater risk.

Moving Around Helps Focus at Work

Dwell’s San Francisco office is a co-working space, and before the coronavirus pandemic I worked in multiple areas throughout the day—a dedicated office, a lounge, and a patio. Now, I’m changing up the scenery while working in my own home. Moving from the dining room to the living room, or to my driveway on a sunny day has been a great way to jump-start periods of mental fatigue or transition between projects.

Connecting with co-workers has taken some extra effort since operations are restricted to the digital sphere. Video conferencing between New York and San Francisco was already part of our workflow, so that has set us up for success in some ways. I look forward to our weekly all-team check-ins, where we share both work-related and personal goings-on.

After morning coffee, some puzzle time, and as much news as we can take, we typically kick off the work day in the living room. 

Exercise Is Crucial

Stillness compounded by looming uncertainty can gnaw at the mind and soul after sitting still for too long. Exercise is far and away the best outlet to stave off spiraling patterns of thought, and it can provide a great mental boost between projects at work. It keeps boredom at bay, too, and can spark some creativity. California’s sunny weather accommodates an outdoor jog now and again, but a living room workout is snappy and doesn’t require the rigmarole of suiting up for public exposure. Maybe we’ll come out of this in great shape.

Architects Were Right

"What will we expect of our homes?" I asked 15 architects what home design will look like post-COVID-19, and they said access to the outdoors (or at least sight lines to nature), efficiency, flexibility, and privacy are fundamental for mental health during prolonged isolation. These provisions felt necessary before the pandemic, but of course now they’re more important than ever. I feel lucky to already have many of these elements in my own home.

The News Is a Weather Vane

At first I binged every report related to COVID-19, and the news often set the day’s tone. It was addicting, fascinating, and terrifying watching events unfold. I buckled in for the ride, opening my eyes for a peek when I felt capable, and doing what I could to support those near to me. The news feeds an uncertainty that sometimes feels extremely taxing, but it’s also a way to keep tabs on how we can best play our part to get through this. Most mornings now kick off with a news briefing.

I Have a Greater Attention Span for Entertainment

I’ve never been a TV person, but movies and streaming shows are suddenly engrossing like never before. Seven Worlds, One Planet has been simultaneously exhilarating and calming, Keanu Reeves throwbacks like Speed or Point Break provide thrills from the couch, and Tiger King’s aptly timed release has made it a zeitgeist unto its own. Margaret and I had never done a single puzzle (since childhood at least), but now we’re on our third. Our dog, Lou Boy, is getting lots of practice with tricks new and old, and he no longer feels abandoned when we leave for work—or maybe he’s sick of us.

Elk at the Waterfall, our third puzzle, is nearly wrapped.

If you say "dance," Lou the dog will do a spin move—but only with a treat in hand.

There’s No Replacement for Real Human Connection

Nourishing a sense of belonging has been extremely difficult. Chitchats with co-workers, friends, and family have helped, even though current events dominate conversation. Most of it has been reduced to what we’re cooking, where we walked, or what we watched—but the effects of connection are still beneficial. Sometimes, it can be hard to conjure the emotional energy. Zoom fatigue is real, and I dream of the day when a hug isn’t a threat.

Every Day Feels the Same Unless You Make Plans

Though working hours help to maintain a schedule, sheltering in place has turned life into a Möbius strip. The weekends require planned activities to stay oriented, and to break up monotony.  Even taking a long walk or preparing a big dinner on a Friday mixes things up in a good way.

I Am in Awe of Those Wearing Uniforms

While I was sitting comfortably in the solace of my home, a friend of mine working long hours at Stanford Health Care texted me a picture of his hands. They were raw from washing and sanitizing, and it felt like a small sign of the intensity that healthcare workers are facing right now. Limits of the soul are being put to the test, and the risks frontline workers are facing are undeniably great and can directly impact the mental and physical health of themselves and their families. The clanging of pots and pans, hoots, and cheers through our neighborhood at 8 p.m. each night are a heartfelt tribute to these workers and a momentous act of solidarity.

Tactile Media Is More Enriching

The insane volume of podcasts and streamable music makes it easy to call up any tune, but being at home has given me time to dive back into those physical records I know so well. Do they sound better than digital formats? Maybe. Notebooks for drawing and sketching are back out on the table, and the books I’ve been wanting to read are all getting read. There is a newfound satisfaction in the sense of touch. 

Being at home has given me time to dive back into those physical records I know so well.

Repetition Is Soothing

It’s been hard to celebrate anything while we all weather the storm. With acceptance of an uncertain future, Margaret and I have found a soothing stride with a routine that hinges on simplicity—coffee, work, dinner, and a show or a book. Without friends texting to meet up or plans on the calendar, we’ve sort of found a cruising altitude. Life’s subtleties, too, are suddenly magnified. Watering a plant is a new thrill.

Tension Abounds in Public Settings

The weekly or biweekly trips we take to the grocery store have shown us the fringes of mental fortitude. While browsing the narrow aisles of our neighborhood grocer, a man who felt trapped lashed out verbally, screaming at no one in particular "aisles need to be one way! Keep your distance!" Nobody was being inconsiderate per se, but it was a reminder of how deeply fear has permeated. Others have clearly studied up on CDC recommendations, and generously share them aloud when protocol is breached.

With masks covering our faces, smiles are hard to land. Barriers can be broken down, though, and there are moments when complete strangers share goodwill. A simple "how are things?" often does the trick.

The Outdoors Are Essential

Going outside has become the best form of reprieve, reinforcing what I already know. Fresh air, trees, and spring flowers on a long walks are common denominators for rejuvenation. Nature is meditative and irreplaceable. It’s amazing the distance you can cover without distractions or plans, and a walk is a fantastic reset for when you get home and start thinking about what’s next—even if what’s next, for the unforeseeable future, will remain inside these four walls.

Day by day, we’re all adjusting to a crisis heretofore unseen in our lifetimes. One thing is certain: the way we live and interact with our homes, and each other, will be forever changed. Follow our coverage of the new normal here, and share your own experiences and challenges by commenting below—or send us an email for a chance to be featured.

Photos by Margaret Austin Photography

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