Among my many blog post drafts, I have a satirical piece that was originally intended to turn all the “remote working is inferior [because it’s a new thing with a learning curve]” stuff on its head.

…And then COVID-19 happened and pretty much overnight, just about everyone suddenly had to do at least some things remotely (even if work wasn’t one of them).

Schools are all now done in distance learning format (hat-tip to all of the school staff who busted their tails to make that pivot and get students of all ages going with relatively little disruption!). Zoom, Hangouts, and all the other video conference services are flooded with new people setting up every meeting, conference, non-meeting gathering, meetup, and social time under the sun. ISPs are getting bitch-slapped for not maintaining or upgrading their last-mile lines.

Suddenly, that satirical piece became kind of prophetic as the imagined “remote is default” scenario starts becoming more of the new normal.

Now, I’ve been a remote worker and an advocate of work cultures that focus on results, thereby allowing the people who can be location independent to be so, for several years now. As a result, I’ve found myself in more or less a “response team member” position, where I help provide resources and be a rock for those who were just tossed into the deep end. Even in that position, and even with my experience as a remote worker, it’s been fascinating to see how things changed for me and how I’ve had to adjust, too, and it highlights just how much non-remote interaction even a 100% remote-working introvert like myself actually has.

As I’ve addressed in the past, there’s a common misconception that being remote means holing up in your basement or something for days on end working on whatever it is you’re working on. It harkens back to the old hacker stereotypes of the hoodied, lanky, teen or 20-something guy in a dark room with nothing but the glow of his computer monitor, surrounded by cans and bottles of Mountain Dew, Hot Pocket wrappers, and pizza boxes perhaps with a stale crust or two, furiously typing away at whatever project he’s working on, only to emerge after several days or a week, his goal accomplished.

If that’s how you remote, you’re doing it wrong. Well…under the old normal circumstances, at least.

The Matrix’s Neo in his apartment taking off his headphones, asking “what?”

The reality for me was that I had a standing weekly lunch with some friends, a biweekly in-person D&D campaign, and whenever schedules and interests aligned, in-person meetups a couple of times a month, as well as the less-frequent conferences and holiday celebrations, and the ad-hoc lunches or happy hours with friends or general networking meetings. In short, I had/have a pretty vibrant social life.

I also enjoyed my days where I was the only one at home, or it was just my husband and me, because the kiddo was off at school, or they were out doing stuff.

All of that shifted in an instant, which turned out to be more of shock than I had anticipated (it probably didn’t help that I now have to also make sure the kiddo is keeping up with his school work). All of a sudden, the option to meet up with friends or even the simple idea of activities like “going to the movies” or “taking the family bowling” was off the table. Hell, even things like doctors appointments and grocery shopping suddenly got a hell of a lot more complicated, and even something as simple as donating a couple of PPE items turned into several days of coordination.

Adapting To The New Normal 

Despite all of that, my day-to-day life has actually started to de-stress, now that the main upheaval of active change is starting to settle down and the new routines are starting to form. And to be honest, a lot of it is really positive.

It helps that the weather is finally reliably improving. Here in Ohio, we’re pretty much past the point of the weather going “you know what? Just for shits and giggles, I’m going to dip us into the 10 and 20 degree Fahrenheit range (subzero for my Celsius friends) for a day or two.” It still gets chilly and in that “just a little above freezing” mark at night (and…you know…tornado season…because Midwest), but we’re seeing more sunny days and the temperature average is creeping into the mid-50s (10+ C).

A week in Ohio. Monday, nice weather. Tuesday, flooding. Wednesday, tornado. Thursday, snow.

Welcome to the northern Midwest in general.

This means doing things outside is an option – and my son and I have been taking advantage of it. We took this opportunity to work on riding his bike without training wheels, which is a pretty big deal to him (so big of a deal, he’s practically shouting it from the rooftops). That has opened up a whole world of fun science-related YouTube channels, like Minutephysics, in which I found a spectacular demonstration of the mechanics of bicycles and how they stay up. For a logic-oriented kid like mine, this was a big key in helping him understand what can make the bike fall over and that as long as he can keep himself centered, it probably won’t, because bikes are built with quite a few features that make them try to stay upright as long as they’re moving (TIL).

I’ve also been able to enjoy a sort of “life slowdown,” overall. Gone is the feeling of needing to do all of the things right now and the general fast pace of (sub)urban life. Between the reduced need/ability to go just about anywhere, and the benefits of manual forms of transportation, even the (local) world seems to have largely slowed and calmed down. It doesn’t feel so weird now to be tending to my garden in the morning or at lunch, like I’m the odd one in the area, because more people in general are getting outside to do literally anything that they can.

Redefining Productivity 

One of the first things we learned as an “accidental homeshooler” family was that you really can’t do a 1:1 replication of the brick-and-mortar school day. It’s just not going to happen. The 7-hour school day is the way it is pretty much solely to play the cat-herding game that is dealing with groups of 30 kids (especially at the elementary level). When your kid can work through the content at their own pace, it will take them however long it takes them to do it. That might be 2 hours or it might be 12. And if it takes 2 hours, don’t try to pile another 5 onto them. It’s not going to turn out well.

Besides, kids learn all the time from pretty much everything – including boredom and learning to self-entertain. Having nothing to do isn’t a bad thing for a kid. That said, if you want to give them something educational to do, have a look a interest-led learning, where you give them something to do based on something they already enjoy. By doing so, you can guide them toward learning a wealth of different topics, while they have fun doing what they love. (See also: the aforementioned physics lessons from bike riding.)

It’s also changed how I have personally approached productivity. Even while working remotely in normal circumstances, I still treated the weekdays as “time to work.” This was partially a practicality thing, because that’s when kiddo was at school and the husband was also working. Outside of the “normal business hours,” the house activity reached a point where I could no longer work very well. Likewise, “work” frequently translated to “the stuff that gets me paid either now or at some point in the future,” and I actively tried to ensure I clocked 6 hours of “productive” time each day. (Yes, 6 and not 8, because that’s actually what most knowledge/office workers actually work on “real” work. The other two generally consists of watercooler chat, refocusing from interruptions, small breaks, and general presenteeism for various reasons, among other things.)

Surprisingly, that had to change, too, and interestingly, it seems to have brought my actual habits, goals, etc more in line with my ideals about how work is supposed to work and how productivity for a high-tech worker like myself actually works.

The stressors of the pandemic, plus a number of stressors in my own life that predate it, have left me running pretty much at a max of half mana for the better part of the past six months or so and really screwed with my executive functioning…and ultimately shining a giant spotlight on the fact that I apparently have ADD (not the hyperactive kind, the good old fashioned “can’t stay focused for shit” kind; I’ll get into the details on that in another post at some point). Combined, everything has forced me to revamp…well…my entire ~day~ life.

Most people probably won’t have to go to that kind of extreme, but most of the changes have revolved around redefining what “productivity” actually looks like.

Hint: it’s not “spend 6 hours every week day working for pay” anymore.

Instead, I’m using the MakeTime calendar template to outline my “ideal” day (what I’d like to do with different blocks of time). While the general idea of the blocks is pretty much the same as what I’m already doing, the afternoon options are just as much “do something not related to coding” (which includes doing my adjunct work or helping kiddo with his work or even doing my own professional development) as they are “do more coding,” because my mornings seem to be the best time for deep coding work, generally. Things like teaching kiddo to ride a bike, or tending to my garden also count (because health and food), as does doing the household finances.

In short, “productivity” is no longer just about currency, but what I can do to keep life in general running. And some days, that means doing things that aren’t tied to a paycheck of some sort, and that’s okay.

But I Need All Those Hours To Get Paycheck Work Done! 

Are you sure about that? Like, really, really sure? Because research and Parkinson’s Law state otherwise.

Try it. Focus less on filling X number of hours and instead create time boxes and focus on what you can get done in that particular time block. Pomodoro type timers work great for jumping into this.

If you do it for a week or two and still need all the extra hours and the “extra” work isn’t from other extenuating circumstances, then you can go back to it (though you may also want to consider whether your workload is reasonable for your position in general; most people don’t actually fill the standard 8ish hour day with “productive” work). No harm, no foul.

Getting Creative 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in one of my (now three) hammocks, which I strung up to the rafters of my covered porch. It provides me with a change of scenery when my office walls start to proverbially close in on me from the sheer amount of time I spend in it. It also lets me enjoy this nicer weather, even while I’m working.

I’ve also been working on my garden, which was something I planned long before all this, but I adapted when things started changing. I had started a number of plants from seed using the usual method of “plant a few in each spot and thin later.” Normally, “thinning” generally assumes that you discard the plants that don’t look as hardy, but that would have been a lot of plants wasted in a time of uncertainty.

Screw that. I’ll take an extra bushel or three of tomatoes if it means that much less of a food supply chain I have to worry about it. (The perks of having grown up in the Appalachian region – canning and dehydrating and whatnot are things I can fall back on without a second thought.)

But…that did mean I needed more peat pots for all these sprouts. Thankfully, Lowe’s still had them, but they didn’t have the containers to put them in to keep them from drying out too quickly (or to keep water from going everywhere), and I had already used the spare one I had picked up earlier. Welp…guess I’m using the lid of the kit I had started with.

…And the Rubbermaid containers I happen to have nearby, so I can get the new set of pots up to the grow light.