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How to nix loneliness and boost productivity while working from home

February 23, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

To the dismay of many (and the delight of others), working from home is the new normal. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the process, the trend has been gaining traction for years.

In Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind) (Gallery Books), veteran journalist Rebecca Seal provides a new guide to managing a productive career from the confines of a home office—without losing your mind.

Seal has been working solo for more than 10 years, so she knows the benefits and downfalls better than most. Her new book culls wisdom from the latest research in psychology, economics, and social science to help us stay resilient, productive, and focused in a company of one, especially on the heels of a worldwide pandemic that has upended the workplace. With chapters titled “loneliness and solitude,” “the power of planning,” and “the curse of comparison (and why social media sucks),” Solo picks up where the how-to guides for freelancers stop—offering practical, inspiring, and reassuring advice culled from a variety of sources, Aesop’s fables and medical journals among them.

Seal recently chatted with Fortune about her observations on what working from home has been like during the pandemic as well as her best tips and tricks to staying productive and combating loneliness for those of us who have been working alone from home for months on end.

Solo-Rebecca Seal-Book
“Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind)” by Rebecca Seal
Courtesy of Gallery Books

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Fortune: You’ve already been working from home for years—you literally wrote the book on it—so I can imagine you were the go-to resource for your family and friends when the pandemic started. What advice or guidance did you initially offer to anyone adjusting to working from home? Has that guidance changed in the past year?

Seal: I was, and it’s been lovely to feel useful in these strange times. My guidance has only changed in as much as some of the advice I give has sometimes been harder to follow, depending on what level of restriction we’ve been living under. One of the most important things for people who work by themselves has always been to make sure you get enough social contact during your week to keep yourself sane and happy. It’s easy, when you work alone, to miss out on even the shallow social connections, which, research shows, make us feel rooted and part of a community. Now that tech can do many of the little tasks which would once have dragged us to the post office or the stationary shop or to visit a supplier, we can find ourselves seeing fewer people than ever. Apps seem to save us a lot of time, but they also rob us of the chance to see other humans, and the data on this is really clear: Our well-being is positively impacted by being around other people regularly, even when you’re just buying a coffee or going out for a walk. Moreover, it turns out that adding social connection into your working day actually helps you get more done, and quicker, probably because your general levels of well-being are higher.

Although leaving your desk might feel unappealing in the moment, if you do it, you come back refreshed. And even if we can’t go out much, we can still reinforce our existing social connections, which I encourage people to do via the phone and not Zoom. We’ve all had plenty of video-calling time, and it’s exhausting. Plus, our brains are better at decoding and listening when they’re not being confused by partial, fuzzy, 2D humans. Plus, by reaching out to people—friends, family, or colleagues—and genuinely asking them how they’re doing, you will help them to feel less alone, as well as you. 

The other big bit of advice I give is about boundaries, and this hasn’t changed. Doing whatever you can to create a space and time for your work so that it doesn’t bleed into and overtake the rest of your life—which is arguably far more important than your work life—is crucial. For some people, that’s about hiding work away when you’re not working, to symbolically tell your brain and body that work is finished. You can shove it all in a box, or stuff it in a cupboard, or throw a sheet over the desk if it’s your bedroom—anything that replicates the job a commute once did, of changing your mode from home, to work, and back again, even if it’s all in one place. I get dressed for work, and put on makeup, just as a transitional ritual, which moves me away from the other person I am right now: a homeschooling mum who spends an awful lot of time washing up and cooking and wiping small children’s sticky hands. Some people light a candle when they work and blow it out at the end of their work session; it can even be as simple as sitting on the other side of the kitchen table to where you normally sit at mealtimes. 

What does your home office setup look like? What are the essentials on your desk? How important is adjusting (and readjusting) your home office aesthetic to your work life?

Constantly checking in on whether your work setup is working for you is really important—and I don’t just mean your desk. Considering what is and isn’t working about your solo working life as a whole is really valuable—as is remembering that almost everything about how we set ourselves up when we work alone contains a degree of choice: where we sit, our hours, and what we are surrounded by. My desk is right next to a window; giving ourselves access to daylight is a great way to help us sleep, as well as staying alert during the day. As dusk falls, I dim the lights in the office, making them warm and soft, rather than bright and white, to help my brain understand that soon it will be transitioning away from work and into the evening, something which wouldn’t be allowed in most big offices. I have quite a lot of plants, because our brains do well in their company—we seem to get the same sort of stimulation from looking at the fractal patterns found in foliage that we do from listening to music. And caring for something gives me useful perspective on what is and isn’t important when I’m panicking over a deadline or struggling with imposter syndrome—my plants couldn’t care less. 

I also have a wooden desk. One of the interior designers I interviewed from the book, who practices biophilic design, explained how our brains crave natural textures and colors—the opposite of what most office design gives us. So I sit on a lovely, soft, and cozy sheepskin fleece draped over my office chair, and above the desk I have photographs of the sky and the sea. “Enriched” working environments like mine have been shown to enhance both productivity and creativity. And even if you don’t have a dedicated space to work—and I worked at the kitchen table for two years, so I really do know how that feels—you can still surround yourself with a plant or two, and make your setup comfortable and soothing. (During the final stages of writing the book, I had to desk-hop between home and a space a few streets away: I carried my laptop bag on my shoulder and a potted plant under one arm. I can only imagine what my neighbors thought each day.) 

Author Rebecca Seal
Courtesy of Gallery Books

What have you found to be the best things about working from home? What keeps you productive? More important, what keeps you sane?

One thing I was startled by when I first started to work from home was how productive I was without all the time sucks you get in an office. Unfortunately, I drew kind of the wrong lesson from that; rather than seeing it as a chance to work less and have a bit more life, I just decided to work more and more and more, until I reached somewhere very close to burnout. (That wasn’t entirely my fault; I just adopted societal patterns and thinking about work which prize long hours over almost any other achievement.) Now, I have a better understanding of productivity and what our brains and bodies need—and it’s almost never more work! The best things for me have been being able to be present in my own life in a way, which is hard if you are always traveling an hour each way to get to work. In normal times that meant going to the gym in the middle of the day, being able to pick up my kids myself, or working in a coffee shop sometimes. Now it means I am more available for my kids; it also, funnily, means that my husband and I have put a lot of time, effort, and thought into making our home a nice place to be, since that’s where we are so much of the time.  

Things that keep me sane are trying to ring-fence work time and home time; my husband, who is also freelance, and I have a rule where you are not allowed to talk about work before breakfast, after 8:30 p.m., or on weekends, unless it’s a real emergency. Carving out time for things that are very much not work is also really important. For me, at the moment, that’s running, cooking, reading, weekly online Pilates classes, talking to friends on the phone while out for a walk, a bit of sewing, a bit of gardening when it’s not all frozen solid—anything that gives my brain a break from screens and my body a break from my desk chair. 

On the flip side, where do you still struggle from working from home? How have you tried to overcome those hurdles?

I mean, I wrote the book because I struggled with everything. I struggled with boundaries, I was lonely, I didn’t feed myself well during the workday, I didn’t take breaks, I didn’t prioritize anything to do with looking after myself, I didn’t see my friends, I drank too much coffee and didn’t sleep enough; through my smartphone I let work bleed into every area of my life—like my bed, my breakfast time, my time in the gym, my weekends—places where it has no right to be. I believed that if I just worked harder and harder, everything would be okay. That working long hours meant I was doing well and would reach some mythical point of “success” one day. That money earned was the only way to assess whether I was achieving in relation to my job, and my life. I took on work which was high status in some lights, but which I didn’t enjoy or find meaningful. I got so much wrong! And I didn’t pause to think about anything or consider whether this was what I wanted life to look like. I just worked.

I overcame all that in two ways: one was writing the book, discovering all the different ways in which we are confused about work in general and how much more so if we are solitary workers without the formal structures of an office, which, while sometimes suffocating, can also occasionally be useful. And the second was just by adopting a mindset which asks questions. Is this bit of work right for me? Have I got capacity right now? Is this setup good for me? Does my body feel okay with how things are in my solo work? Am I working too many hours? Have I spent enough time with my friends or family? Do I feel depleted by my work or energized? Is this going in a direction I like? What direction do I want to be going in, anyway? Although I should point out that I am very much a work in progress, and I do not get all the things right all of the time!

Given the state of the pandemic right now, it looks like many Americans could be working from home until at least the summer, which means many of us have been stuck inside (and oftentimes, alone) for more than a year. For those who might be struggling with working from home, what advice or changes would you suggest to get us through the homestretch?

I know it sounds mad, but every time it feels hard, go and look—really look—at a tree. Look at the patterns bare twigs make against a white-gray sky. Look at leaves, look at stones, look at clouds. The restorative power of time in nature is really quite extraordinary, and we need more of it than we think: 120 minutes a week for optimum well-being, according to an excellent study from the University of Exeter in 2019. Although it may feel as though the way through a difficult time with working from home is just more work, it really isn’t. When we feel stuck, it’s just our brain’s way of saying it needs a break, and it will carry on working on problems while we are doing other things anyway. 

Other things to try to include: taking regular breaks from work which really help you unplug, both during the working day and between them, either through something like exercise or through a hobby which engages your brain in a completely different way. Feed yourself with care, make yourself a nice lunch, even if you’re alone. You deserve to eat well, and it will help you get more done, quicker, later on. Provide yourself with the best working environment that you can. 

More than anything, though, lower your expectations and be very, very kind to yourself. We are dealing with the most extraordinary levels of stress, and very few of us aren’t feeling ragged. Don’t expect yourself to perform to your highest level right now. Take time to look after yourself. And understand this above all else: This is not what working from home is. Working from home in a pandemic is not working from home. It’s weird, isolating, claustrophobic, and deeply challenging. If you think you hate working from home, just know that this isn’t what it’s normally like—and if you fear that you will never get to work in an office again, don’t. Working from home has the capacity to be much, much better than it is right now. You might even like it.