The coronavirus pandemic is forcing many of us to work from home. There’s plenty to learn from the people who’ve always worked in isolation.
If there is one cohort uniquely prepared for both working from home and going into isolation – it is writers (also people in closed monastic orders).
Writers with book deadlines or a passion project that must be written nowusually have to go into lockdown in order to get the damn thing finished.
They stock up on food, limit their communication with the outside world, create and stick to a routine and stay healthy by getting enough rest and healthy food.
Here’s some of their tips for not just surviving while you work from home or socially isolate – but for thriving and doing some of your best work yet.
Do the hard things first
Ernest Hemingway started writing at 6am each morning and had the fairly consistent routine of a mid-level accountant – not the loose unit that he was in his non-writing life.
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write,” he told Paris Review.
If working from home, start working on the big tasks for the day – the presentation you need to finish, the report you have to write – as early as possible. Obviously if you have caring responsibilities, some things are going to be out of your control, but you’re going to be freshest in the morning. There’ll also be less distraction from email and your group chat sending you the latest scary news from the pandemic.
Once you’ve got the tasks that require the deepest thought out of the way, you can switch to bitsier, more reactive work. You’ll probably find you get more work done in less time, so if you’ve got the kind of job that requires you to be online just in case work comes in, you can spend the rest of the day doing things you enjoy like reading or baking while you wait for your inbox to ping.
Have a routine and stick to it
You’ll need to lock in a routine fairly quickly and stick to it if you want to be productive working from home.
Writers in full throttle will have a schedule that wouldn’t look out of place in the military. They get up at the same time each day, have a word count goal, a time when they put down their pens, a time set aside for exercise, a time when they start drinking and – for today’s writers –a discipline around using the internet and social media.
Even interaction can be scheduled. As Graham Greene wrote in the End of the Affair, “When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch.”
Make sure you plan ahead. When I’m writing, the night before I will write a to-do list, so when I wake the next day (always at the same time each day, and starting work straight away) I have a sense of what needs to be done. I methodically work through the list and tick off tasks throughout the day. By the end of the day, even though I have just been a blob sitting in a chair, I feel a sense of achievement.
Kurt Vonnegut in a letter to his wife outlined his routine – which really had all the elements: “I awake at 5.30, work until 8.00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11.45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.”
At 5.30pm he had a Scotch and was in bed at 10pm. All throughout the day he did incidental exercise such as pushups and sit-ups.
You must exercise daily
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami could only get through the slog that is a writer’s confinement by committing to a rigid exercise regimen. He said in a 2004 interview, “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Even if you live in a tiny apartment and are working from home, you will need to exercise every day or both your body and mind could get a bit unhinged. These guides to exercising at home during lockdown – using appsand makeshift props – might help. And then there’s our early role model – the marathon runner in Wuhan who ran 31 miles around his dining room table.
The internet is your enemy
Social distancing would be a lot harder without the internet. As I write, it’s day 10 of my social isolation and I’ve been in more contact with more friends, in more parts of the world, than the entire rest of this year combined. With no coworkers to look over your shoulder and judge you for checking Facebook, texting, and having long phone chats, you’ll have to be self-disciplined about not spending all day on FaceTime in your pyjamas.Advertisement
If you are going to be effective you’ll need to quarantine yourself from social media and phone calls with friends.
Writers have long seen the internet as the enemy of productivity and have for years now been putting in place practices that limit their time online while writing.
Novelist Zadie Smith doesn’t have a smartphone while Jonathan Franzen writes in a room without wifi and tapes up the ports on his computers so he is not tempted to connect.
In the Woman of the Hour podcast, Smith said, “If I could control myself online, if I wasn’t going to go down a Beyoncé Google hole for four and a half hours, this wouldn’t be a problem. But that is exactly what I’ll do. It’s not some kind of high moral ground, it’s that I so want to [write], that I just have to get it done. And everything else has to take a backseat.”
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Australian writer Benjamin Law recommends an app called Forest which turns off your social media and internet for certain lengths of time so you can concentrate deeply. I use a program called Freedom, which blocks off the internet for a period of time that you set (usually three to five hours a day). That time in the early morning, when you’re doing your hard work, is when you should use these tools.
As I’ve seen about a million times on Twitter this week, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining from the plague. If you use this time wisely, you could get a lot done. Or at least you could finish your work day faster, so you can get back to reading that book.
This is Christine. Be careful, keep reading, stay well.