(Note: cross-posted at talkingaboutdesign.com)
Our whole world is designed. But so many of the designs are invisible.
Many of us are discovering this as we start to settle into new work-from-home habits. We are learning that most of our daily habits, the procedures which we use to be more productive, are gone. We are also seeing a lot of the design in our daily worlds that used to be invisible.
As a nation, those lucky enough to continue their work from home are starting to redesign their previously invisible processes. Raise of hands, who has changed their workspace since starting to work from home? Perhaps you found a room with a door so you can close it? Perhaps you shifted to a spot with more natural light? Who has struggled to end the workday? Suddenly, there is no logical separation between work and home. There is no commute, no walk out of the office doors, to mark an end to those hours. These little redesigns have made for amusing stories. For example, talk show host, Stephen Colbert, still dresses in a suit to get into the work mindset despite sitting in a room at home.
Also, Mynoise.net which hosts high quality recordings of many background noises including “Calm office” sounds has become a surprise hit during the pandemic. Feel free to adjust your ‘office’ to have more or less chatty colleagues or air conditioner noise. Or better yet, visit this google doc or this subreddit to see the oddly-specific ‘sound recipes’ that fans of the website have come up with from “Inside a mountaintop cabin on a stormy night” to “Japanese bullet train.”
The need for these daily redesigns, including rethinking what you listen to and what you wear while working from home, defy simple logic. Thinking logically, working from home should improve personal flexibility, allow more comfort, and provide extra time without a commute. As Science Magazine writer, Adam Rubin, states:
I had visions of waking up without an alarm clock, throwing on flannel pants, making French press coffee, and plowing through piles of work—distraction free—next to a window at my dining room table. I’d cook lunch on my own stove instead of microwaving frozen tamales, call in to meetings from a chaise lounge in the backyard instead of languishing in a conference room, and knock off around 4 p.m., basking in the satisfaction of a productive day.1
He believed, as many of us did three weeks ago, that working from home would lead to a happier, healthier, and potentially more productive lifestyle.
But we know now that it is more problematic than that. More complex. People who work from home often realize they must learn to manage their physical workspace (e.g., making sure the desk is comfortable and the lighting is good enough), but also their mental workspace (e.g., learning to separate work life from home life). People who work well from home learn to iterate on their processes in order to discover what feels good, what helps with productivity, and what should work but nonetheless fails (for me, working from bed).
Fortunately, for me, COVID-19 did not change my working style much. As a PhD student, I already worked from home often. I learned to wake up, make coffee, and write first thing. I need long blocks of quiet time to write well, so I write best very early and very late (when not a creature is stirring). Then, when my morning momentum fades, I take a shower, shave, and get dressed to go outside–except I don’t go outside (this was true before COVID-19 as well). But, by getting dressed as if to go outside, I am more likely to take a walk, go buy groceries, or go check the mail later in the day when I am most tired. At the end of the day, at 5pm, I completely shut it off. I have had to learn this because PhD work never ends and guilt follows you everywhere. However, because it is part of my process to end the day at 5pm, I have gotten much better at avoiding irrational guilt.
The last section of my workday is for fun work. At about 9:30pm, I set aside a few hours to work (or not). I only work on stuff I want to work on. If I don’t want to work on anything, I don’t. This is typically a time to write a blog post or a particularly weird computer coding problem. Usually, this is stuff that is down my priority list. This is, “I’ll try to get to it, but no promises” stuff. However, I had to learn to have this time structured (or designed) because, for PhD students, it seems that you can never get to the stuff down the priority list unless you set aside some time for it. And by setting aside some time for fun work, I feel more invigorated and more inspired to slog through some of the less fun work (like, for me, technical writing and formatting).
Lastly, my designed processes do not always work. If I am working on a big particularly boring task, then I do what this haiku by David Dayson mentions:
not at work —
at home at work but
not at home2
I work from home, but not at home. I leave. I go pay $5 for a ‘floofy’ coffee or a delicious doughnut and find a place to sit for hours away from home. When work is particularly boring, I need the buzzing world around me to brighten my day. I need to overhear conversations; I need the faded sound of songs I’ve never heard before. Basically, I need to design in some joy to my day.
So next time you think about your daily habits, remember, these habits were designed over time. They are artificial. They are imposed. The way you design your day illustrates an important part of design: process design. It illustrates how small tweaks to habits or schedules can have a disproportionately large effect on productivity or happiness. It also explains why so many feel off-kilter as they adjust to working from home.