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What an entire year of working from home has taught me

How lockdown in the UK has helped me to become more positive


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Paul Wallas

2 years ago | 13 min read

Tuesday 17 March 2020. During a team meeting our CEO announces that there has been a number of reported COVID cases in their London Office. Although I’m based in our Nottingham office, the past 6–8 weeks have seen a number of COVID cases rising rapidly throughout the country and as such, for safety measures, we’re all told we can work from home.

At first, my feelings were positive. I work for a company that is flexible and trustworthy towards their staff. I’m fortunate that we’re able to work from home or work from a non-office space when required, assuming we get the work done. When I take work from home days I’m always productive.

Working from home offers fewer distractions and therefore less context switching. Episodes of focused working are longer and often I find myself working past 5pm as I’m in a state of flow.

So once I learned we were able to work from home on a potentially long-term basis, I was confident that my weekly output would be plentiful.

However, after the first month, I discovered that working from home on a permanent basis was hard. I underestimated many of the standard office behaviours and the advantages that they brought to each working day.

Initially, I didn’t help myself. I did not have a dedicated home workspace. I tried to work my normal 8 hour day but I changed how I went about this; sometimes I’d start early and finish early, other times I’d start late and finish late, while some days I would skip lunch. I also stopped exercising as the gym I attended was also temporarily closed.

Collectively, I lost all routine.

As a result, I began to make changes. These changes would take place over the course of the year with the goal of helping me feel more positive, more productive, happier and a more content individual. As we approach a year of working from home, this is what I have learned.

A structured workspace inspires productivity

Not knowing how long the working from home arrangement may last, I assumed I could manage with a DIY setup. Initially, between my wife and I, we owned a single desk and I was perched on the side-end while my wife occupied the correct working position.

Over time, working along the depth of the desk provided little room for my laptop and my legs and so I decided to try a permanent standing position. This involved using one of our dressing tables as a make-shift desk but as I did not own a laptop stand, I propped up my laptop using an unsteady combination of a footstool and two file folders.

Again this was impractical and I would experience both neck and back pains from maintaining an incorrect posture position for the majority of each working day.

Next was the kitchen table. Again, without a laptop stand, I foolishly thought I would “get by”. Having the window to look out of and being close to the kettle were perks that I assumed would outweigh the discomfort of the incorrect seated position. Again, I was wrong.

So we decided to buy a second desk and a second office chair. On the weeks when the lockdown was briefly lifted, I called into the office to collect a large monitor that I could use in place of my laptop. We built the desk next to our existing desk and now my wife and I share a room.

Photo by James McDonald on Unsplash

My desk setup now includes only the essential items I need to be productive. My noise-cancelling headphones. My Chillys water bottle and my MacBook. We also decided to invest in some new abstract wall art that could help to inspire us and spark creative thinking when required.

My workspace is now enjoyable, comfortable and productive.

Routine serves me well

Initially, my belief was that I could make working from home an extremely flexible setup. As long as I made my colleagues aware, I could potentially mix up my working hours meaning some days I could start late and other days I could start early. I soon discovered this was not efficient as I began to lose routine.

Some mornings I would sleep in later than others and more often than not, these days would leave me feeling lethargic and lacking motivation. As such, my sleep patterns were at risk of changing and my daily cycle was becoming inconsistent.

Prior to working from home, my routine was almost subconscious. To arrive at work at 8:45 am each day required a series of smaller routines. Wake up, shower, brush teeth, breakfast, leave the house, commute, walk to the office — each of these was designed to flow into the next. If one failed, the effect was cascading and more often than not it would cause me to arrive late at the office.

Now I’m working from home, this series of smaller routines have been removed from my day and has left me wondering how best I use my time. Without this flow, my morning felt less successful. The aforementioned routines all served as a small to-do list, one that I completed successfully on a daily basis.

Understanding this, I began to build a new routine which looks like this:

6:40 am Wake
7:00 am Workout
7:30 am Cold Shower
8:00 am Breakfast
8:30 am Say a team “hello” and start work
1:00 pm Lunch
5:00 pm Finish Work
5:10 pm Workout
5:30 pm Walk
6:15 pm Prepare evening meal and family time

This new routine is work in progress but is proving to be very successful. My days feel structured and less disjointed than they did 10 months ago and I feel as though I can flow into work on the back of a successful morning.

Walking relaxes my mind

Our working environment largely engages our left lobe and our prefrontal cortex. Decision making requires both cognitive analysis and emotion — we can rarely make a successful decision or one that we feel happy with without both. Jonah Lehrer discusses this in his excellent book; How We Decide.

Spending 8 hours per day in front of a screen can increase feelings of fatigue and tiredness. This is why small momentary breaks such as making a drink or taking 5 minutes away from our screens are extremely beneficial. We’re able to reduce the workload our brain is undertaking.

Photo by Susanna Marsiglia on Unsplash

Going for a walk helps to shift our mindset from current worries and concerns and helps to engage the right side of our brain — our creative lobe, sparking our creative nerves into action.

When I remove myself from my work environment, I’m able to utilise thought replacement. Thought replacement is a self-evident technique which is used widely in cognitive behaviour treatment.

It involves replacing our thoughts with new ones, yet this is often easier said than done. Trying to replace my thoughts whilst remaining within the same environment is a difficult task. Within moments of trying to engage my cognitive awareness on a new idea or thought, any small notification or glance at an email brings my attention back to the present.

By going for a walk, I’m able to introduce numerous distractions and if I channel those distractions to be those that are relaxing (listening to the sound of birds, watching the movement of clouds) I’m able to not only practise thought replacement, I’m also able to provide my mindset with a moment of rest and relaxation.

My physical health plays a big part in my mental health

This is something I want to research more thoroughly, however, I have read a few publications that explore the connection between physical and mental health.

Many leading nutritionists discuss how gut health and our microbiome play an integral role in our mental well being, yet I have yet to read or listen to a plethora of material that discusses the connection between physical and mental health.

Being somebody who regularly visited the gym and enjoys the feeling of feeling fit and active, once the gym’s had closed, my fitness levels soon began to reduce. Initially, I tried various outdoor cardio exercises such as the jump rope and running but as the winter months set in, these also began to dwindle.

Over time, in addition to feeling physically unfit, my mind began to feel cloudy and my emotions began to decrease. I immediately connected the two. Having exercised regularly throughout my life I’m aware that our bodies release endorphins when we exercise.

These endorphins help to reduce stress, increase happiness and although we feel physically tired, we feel mentally happier post-workout. However, I could not find the appropriate workout that I could complete at home.

Photo by deepigoyal on Unsplash

Thankfully, in one of our online slack discussions, my boss mentioned the TRX. I had never heard of a TRX but as he explained how much he liked it and how others recommended it I decided to buy one.

Having bought the TRX and wall-mounted it outside, I now needed to find the best way I could use it for both strength and cardio training. I discovered two PT Trainers who offer free TRX training videos on YouTube (Private GYM and FDMX Fitness) and I was away.

My daily routine now includes at least one workout which is usually at 7 am (weather permitting). Over time, my mind and mental wellbeing are slowly starting to feel clearer, happier and calmer.

If anyone knows or is happy to share links on the connection between physical and mental health, please feel free to mention it in the comments.

I’m not addicted to a morning coffee

Most mornings, on my away into the Nottingham office, I would pass Caffe Nero and most mornings I would stop in for a coffee. This was a habit, I knew that, but it was one that I enjoyed. I enjoyed speaking to the baristas and I enjoyed the taste of my flat white.

Coffee enthusiasts will label me “not a real coffee drinker” but I don’t mind. The flat white was tasty and it was a drink I enjoyed regularly.

Being in lockdown put an end to this habit. Initially, I considered replacing the habit at home but as the habit cue had been removed (something that James Clear discusses in his Atomic Habits book), the habit itself was also removed.

Photo by Alexander London on Unsplash

Do I miss this? On reflection, the short answer is no. I do miss the conversations I had with the baristas and the morning “hello” but not the coffee. It was not the coffee I was addicted to, it was the daily cue (walking past Caffe Nero) that had created a habit which eventually became a routine.

Contentment comes from within

True contentment comes from within. It’s taken me a while to fully realise this. When I look around, I see unconditional love from my partner and our two cats. When I look inside, I see a body free from illness. I ground myself with my current breath within the current moment.

The past has gone, the future has yet to arrive and all I have is the present. This is why I’m happy, this is why I am content. If I’m unable to feel happy and content at this moment, what else can truly make me happy?

Products, materials, and all other life’s excess only bring pleasure. Small releases of dopamine that make you experience the symptoms of temporary happiness which are eventually short-lived. I’m not saying that a base level of products and materials are not required, of course they are, but what I’ve realised is that these do not bring permanent and lasting happiness to my life.

Initially, in lockdown, I was saddened that I was unable to get out into the city, out into the shops and buy a few small items that I thought I needed. As time went on, I began to feel saddened by the fact that the world as I knew it had stopped and as a result, I was feeling less happy. I was reliant on society.

I was dependant on a model and a lifestyle created by others which were outside of my control. I thought that this lifestyle brought contentment but I was wrong. This lifestyle brought me moments of pleasure.

The morning coffee, the after-work drinks, the Friday evening restaurants are all dopamine fuelled, pleasurable experiences which drove my need for wanting more. Having had these moments taken away exposed me to the layer that lay beneath. Was I content?

I now understand that pleasure is an external fuelled source, while happiness is an internal fuelled source. Feeling truly content on the inside means I’ve detached myself from this world. I’m no longer dependant on a model built by society to bring me feelings of permanent happiness.

The UK lockdown put the brakes firmly on the lifestyle as I knew it, though now I feel content regardless.

I’m extremely fortunate

It’s easy to get lost in the world of wanting more and chasing happiness. The constant need to compare brings the constant search for gratification or the need to upgrade.

If I were to compare my house, for example, then compared to some, our house is small. Compared to others, our house is large. Owning a Volkswagen UP! I can repeat this same comparison. Yet, the comparison is not important.

The UK lockdown and the ability to work from home on a daily basis has taught me the following:

Be grateful for the things that you own. Do not be disappointed by those that you do not.

If I feel dissatisfied with the things that my life does not include, the bigger house, the larger car, the better phone, etc, then my life will never feel full and complete.

I now feel fortunate for everything I do have in life, yet this fortune has shifted focus to prioritise people above possessions.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

A little over a year ago, one of our cats had a life-saving operation. We’re incredibly thankful that she’s still in good health and with us today. Working from home has provided me with the opportunity to spend more time with her and her sister giving us more time for daily strokes and more time being attentive to their needs.

There are many other aspects of my life for which I am fortunate. Working within the tech industry means that I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can work from home. Working alongside my wife means we’re able to spend more time in each other’s company.

Reminding myself of this fortune encourages me to always look at the positive side of any situation and to be grateful for the small things that I have in life.

My views on leaving a legacy have changed

Prior to lockdown, myself and my wife were both in agreement that we were happy with life as the two of us and that we were happy to go through life without having children.

As the summer months passed, our views began to change. Spending more time together allowed us to consider that as happy as we both were, we began thinking of a new chapter in our journey, how this may look and how fun it may be to pass on our passions and interests onto another little human life.

We considered how Christmas time and time spent with our parents could be filled with greater joy and we were excited by how we could embark on a new series of holidays and time spent together.

More importantly, we were curious about the life that they could live. What positives could they bring to people and our planet, how would they chose to live their life.

Baby Wallas Due August 2021

We are now expecting our first baby, due August 2021.

Knowing we’re now becoming parents is an exciting time for us and it’s a decision that without lockdown and being fortunate to spend more time together to discuss life, values, passions and legacy on a much greater level than before, I doubt we would have made.

Conclusion

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, as we were told we would now be working from home, I remember saying to my wife “How long do you think this will last? I predict 2–3 weeks”. Back then, the severity of the situation was clearly misunderstood. Not for one second did I think I would find myself facing a 12 month period where I would be permanently working from home.

Yet looking back, this period has been one of opportunity. It has given me moments to understand myself as a person, to learn how I react to hard times, to understand how emotionally I respond to change, to reassess my future goals and my legacy and to help me learn how to feel happy and content with my life in the current moment.

Once the working from home routine is lifted, I hope to carry on my practice and the learnings I have taken from this period.

I aim to carry on feeling happy and content within the present moment. I aim to continue my feelings and expressions of gratitude for my health and for those around me. And on those days where I do work from home, I will maintain the healthy routine that is working so successfully for me 12 months into this current work from home period.

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Paul Wallas

https://paulwallas.medium.com/


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