By Catherine Conley
I don’t know about you, but I find I’m working longer hours at home than I did at school. I didn’t gain the commuting time for myself; rather, it was poured right into the work day—and then some. Now I no longer seem to have the time to read for pleasure, something I used to do every day on the train. I no longer walk around my classroom all day, logging in some 7,000 steps before I even head out for my evening constitutional. Instead I sit down at my computer early in the morning and work till well after the time I would normally arrive home. My back is tired; my eyes are tired; my brain is tired. And there are still dishes in the sink, dinner to make, laundry to fold, and let’s not forget all the sanitizing we feel it necessary to complete. Those clearly defined hours are long and have become less productive as our work from home time has gone on.
I have tried various methods of standing desks and sitting desks and combinations thereof. Nothing can recreate the movement of walking around my classroom, peering over my students’ shoulders, crouching or sitting next to them to discuss a piece of writing. I can’t replace that movement. I can give my students my attention and commentary. We can and do still discuss poetry, prose, and writing, but my movements are limited because of the camera. And when I read their homework, I also still need to sit at a desk. But I’m finding that the rest of the day can be broken up to include some time away from the screen and some movement for the body.
All of the blogs with tips for working from home advise keeping clearly defined work hours. I fully bought into this at first and therefore used to feel guilty if I left my desk during the “work day.” But, as our time working from home has been extended again and again, I’m finding that time at my desk getting less productive instead of more. And the dishes and laundry and such keep piling up. I’ve found myself jealous of friends who are posting about how much they are getting done during quarantine. Something had to change.
Another common piece of advice on working from home is to schedule your time. This I agree with wholeheartedly. I decided to schedule mini-breaks of movement into my day. Short bursts of activity that may not be “work-related” have improved my time in front of the screen. Let’s say I have a class Meet from 8:15-9:45. After we’re done, I’ll spend another 15 minutes recording participation, assigning homework, emailing students who didn’t show, and any other tidbits that came over the transom while I was teaching. Then, I get up. I’ll go into the kitchen and clean dishes for 10-15 minutes. Or, maybe I’ll switch the laundry and fold one load. Maybe I’ll vacuum the living room. Just one of these things at a time. Then, I go back to the desk and do what needs to be done until my next class; then, do it again, until it’s time for lunch.
When I was in the school building, I didn’t work through lunch. I would eat my lunch in the faculty room. If other teachers were free at the same time, we’d chat. If not, I’d read my book. I knew it was good for me to take a break. Somehow, I forgot that when I started working from home. I’d bring my lunch to my desk and keep plugging away between bites. No more. Now I take my lunch break. I leave my desk and sit somewhere else in the apartment. If my husband, who is sharing his out-of-the-home job right now and therefore working part time, is home, we chat; if he’s not, I read my book. I only take a half hour, but it’s enough to recharge me. Then, as they say, it’s back to the books.
By mid-afternoon, I probably need another break. By 3pm, all our possible class or faculty Meets are over. Sometime between 3 and 7, I leave the apartment if the day is nice. I go for a walk to get the body moving. During my walk, I call my mom and talk about nothing and everything. She’s currently obsessed with the koi in her building’s pond. Again, I try to keep it to a half hour. Then, more grading and prepping and responding to emails. When I finish a particularly trying set of corrections, I might vacuum another room or fold more laundry, or pick up the junk that somehow seems to materialize on the dining table overnight, whatever needs to be done—15 minutes. And I no longer feel guilty. I used to commute between 2.5-3 hours every day. These short breaks don’t even add up to that. I’m still committing more time to my students and their work. But now, I’m not so drained by the end of the day nor have a home screaming for attention.
I am not the first to come up with this idea. Research proves that we work more effectively and productively when we take regular breaks. According to a 2011 University of Illinois study, “the human brain’s attentional resources drop after a long period of focusing on a single task, decreasing our ability to focus and hindering performance” (Chignell para 2). Likewise, as New York and much of the nation transitioned to working from home in mid-March, Occupational Health & Safety magazine published tips for successfully adapting to a home workspace. Number three encourages taking regular breaks to improve focus and productivity, and in Psychology Today, Meg Selig notes that taking a break not only increases productivity but also creativity and restores motivation. Additionally, “breaks can prevent ‘decision fatigue,’” in which constant decision-making “wear[s] down your willpower and reasoning ability” (Selig para 8). Without knowing this terminology, I instinctively knew this when I was in the school building, where our breaks were worked into the day for us. The bell rings, the students leave the classroom, and we run to the restroom or faculty room or have a much-cherished prep period. At home, we must give those to ourselves and let go of the feeling that we are cheating if we are not in front of the computer all day long.
Finally, I’ll admit that I’m not always successful at following my own advice. Some days I still find myself glued to the screen for the whole day. That’s okay too. Tomorrow’s another day to try again. So give yourself a break from both the desk and the guilt. You’ll find yourself healthier for it.
Chignell, Barry. “Five benefits of taking regular breaks at work.” CIPHR. 27 August 2019.
Selig, Meg. “How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers.” Psychology Today. 18 April 2017.
“Working from Home: Tips for Productivity, Mental Health, and Staying Healthy.” Occupational Health & Safety. 18 March 2020.
Catherine Rauchenberger Conley is a high school English teacher, poet, and writer. For 22 years, she has worked to instill a love of reading in her students at St. Jean Baptiste HS in NYC. She lives in Queens with her husband and cat. The former supports her writing interests; the latter steals her pens. More of her writing is available in Tuck Magazine, The New Verse News, and on her blog at crcreateaday.wordpress.com.