As a Georgetown graduate, I’m well-versed in acronyms. EVERYTHING on campus had one, from the buildings you had classes in to the clubs you were a part of. It honestly seemed at times like the school was just trying to make new acronyms up to challenge themselves (@GUASFCU). I thought leaving the Hilltop was the end of acronyms in my life.
I was wrong.
A new acronym has become the anthem for my post-college adventures: WFH.
I originally wrote this in early September after 3 weeks on the job, and now 4 months in, I that I have to say is even more relevant. I think we’re all at the point now where things feel normal enough by sheer repetition, meaning it’s now perfect time for a look inward over the holidays.
It’s been interesting to say the least beginning my professional career in the digital world. Not only has it been weird meeting so many people through a screen, but also a fun challenge creating physical and mental space for work while in the home I finished high school and college in. Although I’m by no means a WFH vet yet, I’ve realized few things along the way that I think might help anyone still adjusting to the virtual world, whether in work or school:
We Underestimate our Unintentional Social Interactions
This was obvious to me within a few weeks of finishing college virtually, but it bears repeating. Every chance encounter we had with friends, colleagues, or even strangers on our commute (just me?) has been taken away, and I for one didn’t realize how much I relied upon those small-scale socializations. Turns out I’m not alone. Socialization is found to stimulate dopamine release through triggering the hormone oxytocin, leading to increased pleasure sensitivity. These results hold regardless of the relationship between the people too; a 2016 study from Yale’s psychology department found that even social interaction with robots promoted trust and improved stress coping abilities. This suggests that the mere act of socializing is key to keeping our mental healths in check, which makes sense if you’ve even seen anyone talk to themself. Hell, I even talk to myself sometimes.
Quarantine has forced a layer of intentionality behind all of our social interactions and in turn put an onus on us to seek them out. In short, it’s not as easy as it once was to get that dopamine hit — Zoom just doesn’t do it. My advice — schedule time to talk to people into your daily/weekly routine and hold yourself accountable to it. Ideally you would do this earlier in the day to boost your mood, but any time is great. Now, while making socialization another “task to complete” may reduce some of the fun spontaneity, it’s what’s needed to not only maintain your relationships, but your sanity. Not like anyone has a good excuse to blow you off either.
The Power of Place is Super Real
Just as socialization sends signals to our brain, so does our environment. Tons of research has cited the affect environment can have on attitudes and behavior, so it’s no surprise that the attitudes and behaviors we conditioned ourselves to have in one environment are tough to translate over. For the same reason an athlete locks in whenever they enter the arena for a big game or we go limp and exhale whenever we hit our bed at night, we also associate home with freedom, control, and lack of expectation. Needless to say, those three things don’t exactly exist in the same way at work or school.
That means we’ve been used to going to a separate place to do separate things in separate ways under separate circumstances for nearly 4 generations.
So, I highly recommend you cut yourself some slack if you struggle with focusing in your home office or even getting out of bed. As anyone who’s ever interacted with the MTA will know, we still didn’t have the whole commuting thing worked out before COVID: it will take a while to really get used to this “new normal.”
That being said, for however much longer we’re in this, re-defining your mental associations is key to a balanced work/life relationship. Don’t do work from your bed and don’t do Netflix from your desk.
“Turning Off” Is Now Harder Than Ever
Given the importance of place in determining our mindsets, I think it goes without saying that being within arms reach of our work all the time makes it a bit harder to create boundaries around our time. I’ve had to fight the urge to check my email on weekends multiple times, which for a self-proclaimed digital minimalist is basically the equivalent of breaking one of my ten commandments. Beyond mere proximity, a lot of our free time is spent in the same exact way as we work (on a screen), making it even harder to discipline ourselves. Nancy Costikyan, the work-life director at Harvard (yes they apparently have those) likens our situation to trying to stnad on one foot all the time, an analogy I like. From the outside, it looks like you’re balancing, but in reality you’re making a ton of micro-adjustments to stay upright.
Long story short, it takes real committed effort to keep healthy separation between the various facets of our lives when our brain is telling us we’re doing something wrong. Even 6 months in, it still hasn’t fully caught on. Who knows how long it’ll take before our biological reward system adjusts to fit the time. I guess we’ll only know how well-adjusted we are to fully living from home once we’re allowed to do something else. Until then, all we can do is continue to take care of ourselves the best we can.
Keep it up. You got this. The end is near-ish.