Yes, You Can Do That During the Work Day

Illustration of a calendar with times blocked off with colorful images of actions/activities.
Illustration: Dora Godfrey/ Medium

It’s no wonder polling shows that nearly half of U.S. workers want to keep working from home even after restrictions lift: There’s so much more flexibility. Without a commute, hours are less set. Without an office, everyone is less subject to the group norms that have night owls trying to look alert at 8 a.m., and that makes people self-conscious about leaving the building for any reason.

Still, many people feel reticent about using this freedom. Anecdotes abound of people sitting hunched at their computers without ceasing, not so much as leaving the house for days at a time. In one survey of people working from home, two-thirds said they were more likely to work nights and weekends than they were prior to working remotely.

But fair is fair. It’s likely your workplace is benefiting from you working remotely. Why shouldn’t you get something out of it, too? Here’s how you can start using during-the-day flexibility to improve your life satisfaction:

Track your time

Work hours don’t perfectly correlate with productivity, but if you know that you’re logging an acceptable amount of time, you’ll likely feel more confident about experimenting. So track your work hours for a week or two: Note when things are busy and when they’re quieter. Note which days you tend to work longer hours and if any are generally shorter. Add up the totals. If you work full time and you’re working anywhere near 40 hours per week, then maybe you can relax about exactly when these hours happen.

Start small

If you’re not used to taking any time off during the workday, begin with lunch. Choose one day to leave your desk for a full hour. You can use this time to eat, but also add something else: a short walk, a quick outing to somewhere like the library. When you come back to your desk after an hour, note what happened. Did everything fall apart? Did your colleagues decide that you quit? If not, you probably have more flexibility than you’ve been taking advantage of.

Make a list of adventures

Once you’ve convinced yourself of your freedom, it’s time to figure out what you’d like to do with it. What little adventures might work best between 9 and 5? What life maintenance activities would be easier to do during business hours? You could exercise outside while it’s light or visit the gym when it’s less crowded (important with Covid-19). Some houses of worship are open for during-the-day prayers. A local historic site or museum might welcome visitors between, say, 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

You might also think about your during-the-day energy levels. Would you like to spend an afternoon hour reading outside or maybe taking a nap? Maybe you’d like to spend time with your kids right when the school day ends. When you know how you want to use your time, you’ll be more motivated to make it happen.

Make a schedule

Look at your calendar and choose an upcoming day to try working a different schedule. No meetings on Tuesday? Try reserving a timed ticket for that art museum at 11:30 a.m. Plan to sign off for two hours or so, then figure out when you can make up the time to still hit roughly eight hours for the day. Maybe you start at 7:30 a.m. and work until 11 a.m. and then again from 1 to 5:30 p.m. to hit eight hours.

Alternately, you could create three shifts: the morning, 1–4:30 p.m., and then 8–9 p.m. after your kids go to bed. You might not need all this time, and you might decide to make up the time on some other day instead of hitting eight hours on any individual day, but creating a schedule like this helps with mental accounting (and allows you to proactively communicate to your co-workers when you’ll be unreachable, if necessary).

Test drive and iterate

Now comes the hard part: executing the schedule as planned. On Tuesday, have your little adventure and then evaluate: What worked? What didn’t? You might find that with your workplace, it’s easier to start later or end earlier than taking a long break in the middle of the day. If so, fine — you can work with that, too. Try switching things up each week to see what works best.

Maybe don’t announce it

Some people feel they need formal permission to work differently. But if you aren’t being paid by the hour and don’t have official required work hours, then you probably don’t. In fact, more people are probably using their flexibility than you think. One study of men at a major consulting firm found that many faked 80-hour workweeks by taking big chunks of time off through the day and evening and then sending late-night notes or making calls that implied they were working straight through.

There’s no need for subterfuge, but if you think there might be grumbling from colleagues, it’s probably best not to post photos on social media of you doing nonwork activities during the day.

That said…

Don’t apologize, either

If you get your work done — which the time logs and your great results can show — then you’re good. Before March 2020, many organizations limited work-from-home arrangements because of the belief that people wouldn’t be productive without strict supervision. The past year has shown that people can produce great results wherever and whenever they work. And if work is going to happen in your living room with your family wandering about, you might as well take advantage of the ways in which remote work can actually improve your life, too.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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