Last week, Georgia Tech announced that it is closing its campus and converting to a fully remote environment for the rest of the semester. This means teaching all our courses online and advising our master's students remotely as they work independently on their Final Projects.
Students are working on a variety of projects, from documentaries to research papers, from ethnographic research to translation. Right now, they are preparing to defend their projects in a 30 minute presentation at the end of April. A good work-space at home will definitely be important.
So to help them (and myself) prepare, I asked some fellow professors to share some strategies for working from home.
Above: The desk of my former classmate, Jinyi Chu, Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at Yale University
1. Get a designated work area.
It's easy to think you can work anywhere, because technically, you can. Writers are notorious for working everywhere but the office: at home, on a couch, in cafes, in train stations, on trains, or even wandering through the park with a voice recorder.
Because writing is so psychological, it's important to have a space that mentally prepares you for work. Try to find a space that you use exclusively for work, so your mind knows to focus when you sit down. And when you leave the space, you can more easily think about other things (For example, experts advise against working in bed, because it can make it more difficult to fall asleep).
2. Limited on space? Create mental boundaries.
I don't have space for a home office in my apartment, so I'm using my dining table. My working setup can be opened and then put away, so I know when I'm working, and when I'm done for the day.
There are many ways to get in the mindset. For me, it's always been putting a cup of coffee or tea to the left of my laptop and having something to write on. For many people, it's doing their morning routine and getting dressed for work. It could be anything: putting in your headphones, saying a catch-phrase, starting a timer, or opening your project folder. Do whatever works for you!
3. Plan out a daily routine.
Starting March 30th, you will have classes online. You may also have other responsibilities, depending on your living and family situation. Plan how you will use your time: When will you be in class? When will you do homework? When will you work on your project? Don't forget to include time to relax and get away from your screen!
NPR suggests: "Get ready for work every morning like you are going to physically go into work. Dress up, do your hair — whatever you'd normally do. This puts you in a professional mindset....If you're the type of person who never takes a break at home, set a timer to take time for lunch, and turn off your work....Try to maintain normal work hours, and shut things down when you would normally leave the office."
If you're working on multiple projects, it helps to work on the same project at the same time every day. For example, if you're juggling your Prospectus and three other courses, you might want to decide that no matter what else happens, you will work on your Prospectus from 6:00-7:00 pm every day.
4. Make sure you have reliable internet.
With everyone online at the same time, internet speeds could slow down, so make sure you have reliable internet access. Check out https://gatech.service-now.com/continuity for IT support through Georgia Tech.
5. Get ready for video conferencing.
You will probably have meetings and classes via Bluejeans, so take a moment to prep your webcam. You may want to find a private area with a neutral background, where you can have meetings with your professors. Have a good pair of headphones. Test it out with friends to see if there's background noise. Will it still work if your family member is doing a Skype meeting in the next room?
Note that Bluejeans looks different in the app and browser versions, and in the laptop and tablet versions, so try them out and see which one you prefer. Download Bluejeans here: http://bluejeans.gatech.edu/
Remember that Bluejeans Meetings are at gatech.bluejeans.com (reversal of the above URL).
Don't forget to hang up when you're done!
6. Set goals, and celebrate your accomplishments!
A three-month project like your Master's Project can feel overwhelming. Break it down into "bite-size," measurable tasks that take 20, 40, 60 minutes to complete.
These might be:
- Search the internet for articles on X topic and save them to a folder.
- Take notes on a book chapter.
- Write an analysis of a scene in a film.
- Edit a page you wrote yesterday.
When you've finished a task, Reward yourself! Acknowledge and celebrate the moment: take a 5-minute stretch break, have a snack, watch a video of unlikely animal friendships (don't get sucked in, though; time yourself if you need to).
7. Aim for 4 productive hours per day.
Lelia Glass, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgia Tech, writes:
- "Set a timer when you work. Any time you check emails, read Twitter, get coffee, wash your hands, etc, pause the timer. Pause it as often as you want, but keep working until you get to a real hour.
- Once you reach your goal, relax, knowing you really put in quality time on your work. This is how I wrote my dissertation from a couch in San Francisco over the course of nine months or so."
Dr. Glass says she uses this method to "do about 4-5 hours of writing per day." Turns out, the average human brain can only stay deeply focused for a maximum of 4-5 hours per day. So if you've worked for four hours productively, you've done an amazing job!
Creating protected blocks of time, like an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, can help you prioritize your current top project. And remember, once you've reached your goal, take a break!
8. Take breaks!
Just as important as a designated work area is a designated space for time off. Whether it's your favorite couch, your bed, or the act of closing your email and washing out your coffee cup, it's important to step away and give your mind a break. Dr. Glass suggests going for a run, cooking a healthy meal, and video-chatting with family and friends.
9. Chaos is okay.
The middle of a project is always messy. Remember Einstein's words:
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,
of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"
Creativity is messy.
Adulthood is messy.
The world is certainly not a tidy bookshelf.
It's okay to lean into that chaos a little.
Or in the words of R. Eric Thomas, writer for Elle Magazine, "These are great suggestions but, as a chaos Muppet who has worked from home for years, they're incomprehensible to me. What none of these articles seem to consider is that the pivot to being a responsible human being and productive employee may be too jarring in these uncertain times.
Where is the advice for people who experience office life as a succession of shambles punctuated by low stakes gossip and high stakes free food, and want to bring that energy into their living rooms? Where is the representation for people who stroll through open floor plans talking loudly, holding a Gladware container full of freshly microwaved salmon?"
What are your strategies for working at home?
Tell us on social media!
- "The Daily Routines of 20 Famous Writers," Brain Pickings, https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/11/20/daily-routines-writers/
- "8 Tips to make working from home work for you," npr.org/2020/03/15/815549926/8-tips-to-make-working-from-home-work-for-you
- "Managing Large Writing Projects," Inside Higher Ed, insidehighered.com/advice/2009/04/24/managing-large-writing-projects
- "How to Work from Home Most Chaotically," https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a31350980/how-to-work-from-home-most-chaotically/
Special thanks to Lelia Glass and Jinyi Chu for sharing your work-spaces and tips!
By Jenny Strakovsky, Assistant Director of Graduate Studies