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Working from Home? Take a Day Off.

The first few years of working on my PhD, I worked long hours. Really. Long. Hours. And I worked every day of the week. I had other commitments than school, and a great group of friends, so I took some time off during the week. Yet, even on my light “off” days, I did some work.

About halfway through my degree, I made one of the best decisions of my graduate career: I made a rule.

Fast forward to now: Seattle, Washington, the country, and much of the world have been quarantined for some time now. I continue to see my clients for therapy, and speak often with colleagues from across the country. All online, of course. A common theme has emerged: people working from home feel like they are working all the time. And not getting much done.

Folks are finding themselves working on the weekends. They work due to increased pressure at work, or a slower pace of productivity, or as a distraction from COVID-19 anxiety. Some never worked on weekends before. For some, it was an occasional thing. Regardless, people feel less productive and less satisfied with their work than they did before quarantine. This despite working longer hours and devoting time on Saturday and Sunday for getting just a little more work done.

Working extra days feels necessary. But is it?

Back to grad school. About halfway through I attended a student panel. There was another student who shared (contentedly, I might add) that he took every weekend off. Completely off—5pm on Friday until Monday morning. I was dumbstruck. Most convincing was that I knew him as a person. He was smart, but not a special genius. Yet despite (or because) he took so much time off, he did fine in his academics. I also knew his extracurricular life was enviable.

If he could do it, I could too. That night I decided to take Saturdays completely off from any work. I was not ready to take the whole weekend off, and I never actually felt that I needed it.

I chose Saturday for my respite. I knew that if I needed it, I had all day (and night) on Sunday to finish what I needed to do. From the moment I woke until I went to sleep, I could not do anything related to school or work or research or clinical activities. Most Saturdays, I read and played.

It was not easy at first—my anxiety told me to get back to work. I struggled to enjoy my day because I worried about getting it all done on Sunday before the week started again. There were some mornings when I started to work without thinking—I would catch myself and have to put it away until the next morning. Yet with time, worklessness became my default modus operandi.

No one but myself was enforcing my Saturdays off rule, but I became to know that Saturdays were a day of rest. I came to know this in the same way that one knows not to eat ice cream for breakfast. No one enforces you to avoid Rocky Road in the morning or one’s dissertation on Saturdays, but it became my routine. I knew it was best for me.

Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill the time it’s given. In normal times, for many people, we constrain work to the office. It’s hard to sleep at the office, and inconvenient to drive in on the weekends, so the work gets done during the week (even with a few long nights as needed). Yet, during the stay at home order, many people have brought work home with them. All of a sudden, you can work from the time you wake up, to the time you go to sleep, seven days a week. Whether you actually have more work in quarantine, your work will tend to expand to fill the time you have. For many, the time available for working has expanded way beyond its usual limits.

When I took Saturdays off in grad school, it motivated me to get my work done before I had to pause. It put a boundary on my time. And just like Parkinson’s Law said it would, somehow my work got done with one fewer day for doing it.

As I started to accept that I would not be able to work on Saturday, my mind began to stop thinking about work on those days.

As I started to trust the process, I stopped worrying about work on Saturdays. Sure, I still worried sometimes. But somehow my mind knew that I could worry on Sunday instead.

As I practiced this routine, I stopped getting emails on Saturday from folks asking for things. Friends learned that I could actually spend time with them on Saturday night, and reached out. I felt more energetic, happier, and healthier than I had been in years.

Not only was my life better, but my work got better. I could even do more work.[1] Sure, a few Saturdays I retrieved my laptop and worked when I truly needed the extra time. Yet, I made sure these boundary crossings were temporary and infrequent, and in the last two years of my degree I only broke my rule a handful of times.

Learn from my experience. If you are working from home during quarantine, commit to taking a day off each week. Make it concrete and consistent: not “I’ll take one day off this weekend.” Rather, “I’m taking Saturdays off,” or, “from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, I don’t work.” Even take off just a block of four hours if you must. Let someone know about your commitment and follow through. I promise the work will still get done.

Important: you will be more productive. More important: you will emerge from quarantine happier and healthier than you would otherwise.

[1] At one point, while taking Saturdays off, I calculated that I had committed to an expected 72-80 hours of work each week. I usually found efficient ways of getting things done and did not actually work this many hours—but not always.

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