Balancing Work and Life at Home

A conversation with author Laura Vanderkam
October 5, 2020 Updated: October 5, 2020

Our daily routines and habits have been shaken and uprooted this year in a way few could have predicted. As many try to juggle home life, school life, and work life all under one roof, we could use some good advice.

I asked Laura Vanderkam, productivity expert and author of “The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work From Home,” for her advice. 

The Epoch Times: At first, working from home sounds great—pajamas all day, snacks whenever you want them, work when you feel like it. The reality, though, is that it comes with its own challenges. What aspects of working from home do you think people struggle with the most?

laura vanderkam
Author Laura Vanderkam. (Courtesy of Portfolio/Penguin Random House)

Laura Vanderkam: No one likes commuting, but commutes provide a natural structure to your day. There is an obvious transition from home to work and then, more importantly, from work back to home mode. You have to leave at some point—you aren’t going to sleep at the office

When you work from home, this natural structure disappears. People can feel really adrift without it. Of course, most people eventually learn to create their own structures, which often work better than the traditional ones, but this takes some time. If remote workers aren’t careful, they can wind up half-working and half-surfing the web all night—not getting anything done, but not relaxing either. 

The Epoch Times: There are some advantages, of course, to working from home. What do you think the most important ones are?

Ms. Vanderkam: Offices can be distracting places, and there’s some evidence that people feel they can focus better at home. That might not be the case for parents who are combining work with caregiving but for others it is. 

Remote work also allows people to work how they work best. You can set the temperature where you want it. Ideally, you can be more flexible with hours too. Plus, commutes burn energy without accomplishing much. A lot of that energy is redirected into work and into healthier lifestyle choices. 

The Epoch Times: In today’s unique times, many families are juggling not only work and family at home but also schooling—whether they’re homeschooling or coordinating some version of distance learning. What advice would you give parents who are trying to manage so much?

Ms. Vanderkam: Before COVID, one of my first bits of advice to people working from home is that this is not a good way to save money on childcare. Someone else still needs to be in charge of your young children during the hours you plan to work. I realize that the pandemic has made child care and schooling more complicated, but fundamentally, this is still true. 

So, if you have two parents working from home, the best option is to split the hours. Each party works half the time and takes care of the kids half the time. You can get 25-30 focused hours a week this way, and you’ll get so much more done in two hours of focused work than in four hours of going back and forth. 

With older children who are doing school online, you can still split which parent is in charge, so you know to plan the focused work when you aren’t the party who is “on.” If you’re parenting solo, see if you can find another friend, neighbor, or relative in the same position and team up to swap child care. 

You can also hire child care for a few hours a week to make your life feel more doable. Sure, it costs money, but losing your job is expensive. Plus, you’re probably spending less on travel, gas, dry cleaning, and eating out—the money might be there. 

The Epoch Times: What do you think are the key strategies everyone needs to know to succeed at working from home?

Ms. Vanderkam: Self-directed work is challenging, but ultimately more rewarding. I like to think about each day in terms of tasks, rather than hours. What do I intend to do each day? I set challenging but doable goals that will likely take about eight hours, but that’s not the point. When I get through the list, I know I have had a good day, whatever time it happens to be. This idea of managing by task, not time, is revolutionary, and can really help work-from-home workers succeed. 

The Epoch Times: You talk in your book, “The New Corner Office,” about “getting the rhythm right.” Can you explain the concept? How can we get the rhythm right? 

Ms. Vanderkam: A good day has a rhythm. That rhythm helps you manage your energy so you can get more done. 

You need some way to start the day—an opening ritual that takes the place of a commute. You need to match the right work to the right time. Most people are more focused in the morning, so that’s a good time for any challenging work. 

You need to take breaks to replenish your energy. I find that three breaks in an eight-hour day work out about right (mid-morning, lunch, mid-afternoon) but if you’re setting your own schedule, feel free to experiment! 

And you need a way to end the day, so you don’t half-work all evening. Find some way to indicate to yourself that the day is done, so you feel free to relax, even if you can see your workspace from the rest of your house.  

The Epoch Times: Since the unique events of this year have altered life for so many, what new lessons have you learned about working from home or life balance in general?

Ms. Vanderkam: I’ve worked from home for 18 years, so I’m used to setting my own schedule, but having my children in the house much of the day has presented new challenges. I’ve become even more focused on figuring out exactly what has to get done on any given day, holding myself to that, but then not worrying if nothing else gets done. If I’ve chosen my daily tasks well, then I will make progress. I might not return all emails in a timely manner but … oh, well. 

new corner office book
“The New Corner Office: How The Most Successful People Work From Home” by Laura Vanderkam. (Portfolio/Penguin Random House)
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