Working From Home Considered Harmful

Throughout the COVID pandemic I have felt mostly positive about the shift to remote work/work from home. Who doesn’t love the ability to get laundry or errands done in the middle of a work day? A spontaneous nap, an hour of commute saved? Even when it comes to actually working and not playing hooky there are undeniable benefits. I bought a standing desk, an Aeron chair, a 27” 4K monitor, ergo keyboard, and occasionally found myself deep in the zone cranking out code or research tasks while pumping music through a nice set of studio monitors. Developer heaven, for the most part.

Now the pandemic is mostly over and I’ve been wrestling with the rather novel problem of building my own work and life routines from scratch. This is of course compounded by the fact that PhD programs are notoriously unstructured. I have an office on campus but it’s cramped, the 1080p monitor makes my eyes bleed, and there’s no natural light to speak of. Most of my research can be done anywhere with an internet connection, so why wouldn’t I work from the comfort of my home office the majority of the time?

By chance, this semester’s class schedule forces a lot more time away from home (many same-day early morning and late afternoon classes). I’ve noticed my life feels qualitatively way better. A large amount of existential angst and anxiety has absolutely evaporated. While I wouldn’t be a good social scientist without noting that correlation doesn’t always equal causation, I’m fairly confident in a number of theoretical explanations for why working from home actually sucks. (After all, class schedules are arguably an exogenous shock to work-from-home exposure, no?)

  1. Mental separation between work and relaxation created by different physical space. This one is huge. I’m not sure if I’m wired more aggressively than others, but it feels so easy to waste time watching Youtube videos and surfing reddit in my home office compared to a coffee shop or my department office. Humans are incredibly spatially aware, and maintaining strong associations between activities and spaces has always been really helpful for me whenever I’ve noticed I’m having trouble spending time the way that I want to.1

  2. Spontaneous interactions. Nothing interesting happens at home - only exactly that which I expect to happen. At the department, I might attend a talk, have a hallway conversation with a professor. I might visit a bookstore on the way home. I might see a gallery opening poster on the walk to the subway. I engage with the world more wholly outside, than inside. This seems trivially obvious, but for a long time I somehow justified paying New York rent to… live inside a small box and (rarely) go outside???

So yeah I guess if you feel like your life is oddly stagnant and you are frequently wracked with anxiety about whether you are being as productive as you could be, having a hard time justifying relaxation, and feel disconnected from your work… go touch grass?

  1. Curiously, even if I don’t accomplish much in the way of work I notice that I’m much more relaxed and less ashamed of slacking off/recharge activities at home if I spend the day out. Something about the primitive brain - daytime outside, nighttime inside. 


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