How to Work From Home Productively, According to the People Who Do It Often

Mary H.K. Choi, Theresa Chromati, Katie McCurdy, and other New York City–based freelancers share how to get into work from home mode.

Directed and Photographed by Yorgos Lanthimos; Styled by Sara Moonves.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have upended daily life in ways we might never have imagined a few weeks ago. Workflow is one of them. Freelancers and service-industry workers are hurting for jobs now that events are being canceled, people are increasingly opting to stay at home for fear of exposure, and the economy is tanking. Office building closures have left those who usually work at desks on their couches instead, doing their jobs remotely. The break in routine is awkward, to say the least, for those adjusting to a new normal. But many artists, photographers, and writers who work in the gig economy have been living this life for years. Here, some New York City–based freelancers share their sage advice and personal tips for how to get acclimated to a workspace that was once your place to relax.

Mary H.K. Choi, writer and author, Permanent Record

The biggest productivity advice I can give is: naps. A twenty-minute nap with a timer set for after lunch is absolutely fucking miraculous. The biggest trap for people who are newly WFH is that there’s an expectation that you’ll get so much done because you’re not dealing with a thousand interruptions and contending with a commute. In my experience, I’ve got maybe two patches of productivity a day, tops—and each one taps out at about two hours. The rest of the time I earmark for the dithery administrative chores that I don’t need complete focus for.

Also, let yourself “arrive” to work. Don’t roll out of bed and slide straight into e-mails and then look up and have some desultory meal at 3 p.m. or else graze all day and realize you’ve eaten 19 servings of peanut butter pretzels. It’s not about judgment (this is a safe space because: global pandemic), it’s about how depressed and shitty you’ll feel after a few days of this. This might be your new life for a spell longer than you anticipate. Take a shower. Put on house pants and furry shoes. Have lunch. Give yourself an hour and eat something you’ll look forward to. Have a quick snooze if possible and definitely “leave” at a decent hour. It’s fucking haywire outside. Some gentleness in looking after yourself is crucial. Also, make sure to parcel out some time to call your parents and the older people in your life so you can yell at them to stay home and so they can yell back at you for being patronizing.

Plus, feel free to assign yourself a mental health buddy from work like your work-wife and check in if you need a little hand-holding. Tell them when you’ve had lunch. Ask what they had. Shoot them a Slack or a text if you’re done for the day. Ask them when they’re planning to leave. Stay connected with people as best you can so you’re not completely isolated and feeling like you’re in that one excellent Ling Ma book, Severance.

Devin N. Morris, visual artist

I begin my work day with espresso coffee that I brew, and a smoothie. If I want to be productive, breakfast must be simple so that I can quickly begin working. I work at my kitchen table, since the chairs help me sit up straight and the table height is optimal for typing while sitting. I also need a clean, well-lit space, and that’s why I choose to work in my kitchen—far away from the bed, my couch, and comfort. I try to get the most work done before noon. An early start helps to ensure that. I normally like to work from home in the morning, and then go to my studio in the afternoon, using home for editing images, sending e-mails, and sometimes drawing to work through ideas. Lunch is either prepared the night before or I’ll use lunchtime as an excuse to take a quick walk and catch up on phone activities. I find that quick bursts of random movement help me recalibrate, when needed. So often I do just that, whether it be dancing, taking a walk to the window to see what’s happening outside, or walking around in my backyard. Also, to manage anxiety, I might stand, dance, and type at the same time.

Rebecca Fishbein, journalist and author, Good Things Happen to People You Hate

I’ve been working from home for a couple of years, and it’s really not so bad. I make sure to put on clothes I could wear outside (maybe not jeans, but definitely a sweatshirt and leggings) and move from my bed to my workspace so my brain knows it’s not nap time. Other than that, I try to take walks in between work breaks, and when I’m done for the day, I reward myself with chocolate. After a while, you get used to it.

Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., photographer

Because my home is the site of so many responsibilities and interests, it’s important that I give them all equal priority; eating (well) and speaking to friends are just as important as meeting and negotiating deadlines. This discipline prevents self-shaming, which I find to be one of the largest deterrents in creating my own schedule.

Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner, writer

I’ve worked from home for almost four years—the last two of which I’ve used a tiny corner in my kitchen–living room (New York City!) as an “office.” For me, it helps that I have my computer, keyboard, trackpad, headphones, and chargers at my desk so when I sit down, I’m ready to work. I also have lip balm, pens, a notepad, a scented candle, and some art to add a little ambiance. Staying focused at home can be tough, especially when you don’t have a separate office space—I have a planner listing my priorities for the day, smaller tasks I want to get done (like sending an e-mail or researching a topic) and I also try and schedule my day on my calendar as much as possible. Scheduling lunch is really important for a mental break, and I try to take walks outside as much as possible.

I also like to break up my day to feel more creative and refreshed, so I start with coffee and reading in my PJs, move on to e-mails and any lingering work from the day before, and then sometimes start new projects or continue on existing ones. I’ll work out or shower at home to break up the day, make lunch (away from the computer), and then try and deep focus for several hours. Sometimes it can be hard to shut off, so I’ll have a little end-of-day happy hour for myself—one drink and a small snack. When I finish those, I need to sign off.

Katie McCurdy, photographer

When working from home, routine is really important to me. I like to wake up early, coffee right away, and then some sort of exercise—my favorite is a run in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. After I’ve had my morning, I have a clear head and can start working on whatever I need to accomplish that day. I’m also huge on making lists, it helps me manage my time and makes room for me to schedule nonwork-related things. Working from home can be challenging if you’re easily distracted, but I prefer to be in my own space and dictate my workflow.

Theresa Chromati, visual artist

I’m in a loft live-work space, and I’ve created boundaries to separate my work space from my environment for rest and recharging.

My work space has superfluorescent lighting, it helps with keeping me focused and engaged in every detail while painting in my studio. Music is key—I’ve been listening to Eartheater, Lapsley, and JPEG Mafia recently. The rest of my home consists of warm lighting and some Christmas lights that my mother gave me. It’s important for me to have knickknacks around my living space that center me and remind me of special times and my family. I believe that also keeps me in a mind state of thinking about the many forms of relationship and their importance, inside and outside my studio.

In the morning I get dressed (it’s a must to get your brain ready to work productively). Wear something comfy, though—right now my go-to shoes are a pair of Awake x Reebok sneakers, and I love Maroon World hoodies. For caffeine, some days I stay home, making a cup of tea to drink out of my great-grandmother’s mug or I’ll go for a quick walk through my neighborhood in Brooklyn, Greenpoint, to Bakeri for a large almond latte to go.

Taking a break around lunchtime is so important. You’ll be doing your work a disservice if you don’t. You need that time to enjoy a meal, have some human engagement, even if it’s with your barista (great conversation potential!). Sometimes I take a walk by the water and enjoy the reflections, or go to my local flower shop to get a few stems for my kitchen.

Then you can reenter your work with fresh eyes.