How to Work From Home, According to Neuroscience – Vanity Fair - Freelance Rack

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

How to Work From Home, According to Neuroscience – Vanity Fair

I once heard a story from a book agent about an older gentleman who wrote novels for a living, and who did so working from a home office. The man would wake up each morning, go down for breakfast with his wife, and then go through a morning ritual that he had done every single weekday, without fail, for almost five decades. He would shower, shave, and then get dressed in a three-piece suit, replete with a bow tie and matching pocket square, grab his briefcase, and then kiss his wife goodbye, before walking about 10 feet into his home office, where he would close the door, and spend the morning writing. The man, apparently, had deduced that the only way to work from home was to act like he wasn’t actually home. Self-deception is normally considered a psychopathology—but in the case of working from home, it actually might be the only way to maintain mental health, a mind game you have to play against yourself.

Science actually seems to back this up. I’ve spoken to neuroscientists, psychologists, and technologists (along with plenty of writers) about this challenge, and while the approaches may be different, the reigning theory seems to be that you constantly have to trick yourself into thinking that you are not, in fact, at home. So getting dressed like the older gentleman is highly correlated with being productive. Granted, you don’t need to wear a bow tie, or a pantsuit with high heels, but it’s advisable to tell yourself, and your brain, that you’re now about to do something new, and an important first step is to get dressed each morning. But that’s only the beginning.

Years ago, when I was struggling to juggle numerous work projects (writing a book and writing news stories and doing a podcast), I reached out to Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, who told me that the brain is always going to find the path of least resistance to do something (us humans are pretty lazy at the end of the day, and our brains are no different), and so you have to trick yourself into being able to concentrate. Small’s advice was to allocate different places in the home that are dedicated work spaces for specific projects. For example, for me, when I worked on journalism-related pursuits, Small suggested sitting in one specific place, say a dedicated chair, and trying to place other markers that the brain would quickly identify nearby: a scented candle, a specific type of flower, anything that says, “I am in this space, doing this thing.” When I had to work on my book, the advice was to find a dedicated spot in my house to do that, with very different markers, a different kind of chair, another smell from a different candle, or even just an altered form of lighting. It doesn’t take long for the brain to recognize that if you’re working in one space, with all those little innocuous cues, you’re working on one thing versus another. For me, it was a game changer. This theory is not saying you need to build a home office in your backyard in order to be productive; it’s simply saying: don’t work from your bed or your couch. Find a place that is dedicated to work and nothing else. Even if it’s just a different seat.

Given how much of a role technology plays in our work lives, the tech we choose to use for work can also contribute to our ability to actually be productive. Applying Small’s theory that the brain finds associations with everything, I truly believe that “working” on your phone is disastrous and should be avoided at all costs. Think about it: We text with our friends on our phones, watch funny meme videos, rage-tweet at Donald Trump, flick through photos, swipe on dating apps, and then, on that same little device, we think we can clack out a really important work email? I never, ever, work on my phone—unless it’s an emergency.



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