Writing desk

Kim Cross's writing desk

The first year I had to work from home, it was dictated by a crisis.

During a weekend visit with me and my family, my mother contracted bacterial meningitis and nearly died. In less than 48 hours, she went from a mountain-bike ride in the hills to a negative-pressure room in the ICU. After weeks in and out of the hospital, we weren’t sure she would ever walk again.

At the time, I had a 5-year-old child and a full-time job as a senior editor of a monthly magazine. My boss generously let me work from home so I could care for my bedridden mother, who needed 24-hour care. We couldn’t afford a live-in nurse, so I became that nurse. Who also had to meet deadlines.

Writer's art installation

Kim Cross writes as part of an art installation by Vox Poplar during a writer-in-residency in Boise, Idaho

For months, I rarely left the house except for weekly trips to three different doctors. I learned how to administer antibiotics through a PICC line, bathe an adult with dignity, and manage expectations — not only my boss’s but my own. I learned to function in an anxious, uncertain environment, dominated by factors outside my control and with no clear end in sight.

After a year and a half, my mom recovered and moved back into her home. But what I learned during that scary, tumultuous time gave me the confidence to eventually quit my job to write a book and freelance full-time.

I’ve been working from home now for seven years. Yet the COVID-19 quarantine, along with a perfect storm of house problems, has proven to be a challenge unlike any I had bested in the past. So I find myself returning to the things that got me through my mom’s health crisis. What works for me might not work for you, but if you find yourself struggling to stay productive and focused, here are a few things to try.

Develop a morning ritual

A lot of people more successful than I swear by a morning ritual, and each one is highly personal. Mine involves a mental “warm up” of 15 minutes of non-essential writing. Sometimes it’s journaling, sketching a scene, or recording some overheard dialogue. If that feels too much like work, I’ll hand-write a passage I admire by another writer. This forces me to slow down and study the prose at handwriting speed. It’s like walking through a city: you notice details you’d miss at car-speed. This morning, I copied a passage from Rachel Carson’s “The Sense of Wonder.” I had read it before, but this time I noticed a salient sentence I’ll probably quote in a future story.

And an evening ritual

When you can’t physically leave the office, it helps to have an evening ritual that signals the end of the workday — ideally with some reward. Mine involves doing something outside (a walk or a bike ride), then listening to a podcast or an audiobook while I cook dinner. My headphones provide the illusion of privacy as my husband and son and dog catapult around me. And when I’m lost in someone else’s story, it’s forces my brain to disengage from the project I’ve been thinking about all day. Because I write nonfiction, I often escape into fiction. I just “re-read” (on Audible) “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music,” two voluminous novels by Pat Conroy that my eyes are too tired to read at night.

Take phone calls outside

Unless I’m doing a recorded interview, I take phone calls outside and stroll around the block or just stand barefoot in the grass. This may not be an option if you live in the heart of a city, but in most neighborhoods it’s not hard to stay more than six feet from other folks walking the dog. If I am doing a recorded interview, I upload it to Otter.ai (thanks to my friend Bronwen Dickey, who told me about this life-changing app), which offers 500 minutes of free transcription a month. While Otter is doing the work, I take a walk.

Batch-process email

Constantly toggling over to email is the biggest productivity killer I know. If I have the willpower to batch-process, checking three or four times a day instead of constantly, it helps me stay focused. If I’m struggling to stay disciplined, I might use an app like Freedom, which blocks certain websites (or all internet access) for a specific amount of time. You can also “pause” your Gmail in-box, which allows you to compose and send email, but holds delivery until a certain time. If going without email for hours at a time is not an option in your job, Getting Things Done can help you create a more efficient system for tagging and prioritizing important messages and organizing others that need action.

Find a writing soundtrack

When it’s noisy — and since my husband’s coping mechanism involves tables saws and an air-compressor, my house is always noisy — I have started experimenting with binaural beats and music designed to help you focus. Different from binaural beats, but in the same vein, Brain FM employs scientists and musicians to make music they claim helps nudge your brain waves into various states of focus, relaxation, and deep sleep. I haven’t fact-checked the scientific claims, but I’ve found it, anecdotally at least, to be helpful.

Work in short bursts

When I’m really struggling to focus, or just plain procrastinating, I’ll turn over an hourglass (usually a half-hourglass) and force myself to keep my ass in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard for a finite period of time. Then I give myself a break or a reward — a cup of tea, a quick email check. In sports, interval training is one of the fastest ways to increase fitness, and I believe the same is true of training your mind to focus. Knowing there’s a break in sight intensifies the effort and work. This is especially useful with first drafts, which I always find the most painful. After developing my method, I learned about the similar Pomodoro Technique, which has been around for decades. But I think my hourglass is sexier than a tomato-shaped egg timer.

Make play a priority

At least once a day, I do something that doesn’t involve writing, reading, working, or thinking about any of the above. Yesterday, that meant doing a front-yard circus triathlon with my 12-year-old son: we juggled tennis balls, walked a slack line (like a tight rope) and “surfed” the lawn on a balance board. We’re also learning wheelies together, in the street in front of our house. I’m sure there’s a neuroscience expert who can explain this, but there’s a notable “brain boost” when I do these things, and it translates to lower anxiety and better quality work.

Self-medicate with sleep

I’m a big believer that sleep is medicine, and time after time in my life, my body reminds me that when I don’t get enough sleep, I get sick. When I had an office job, I would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to get to the gym and carve out an hour of personal writing time before the workday began. Now I don’t even set an alarm. I wake up when my body signals it’s time, and I’m always at work by 9. I’ve also discovered the power of naps, which used to make me feel guilty. But sometimes, when I’m stuck on a story, the answer works itself out in a 20-minute nap or wakes me at 3 a.m. If the latter, I’ll get up and write my way through it…then indulge later with an afternoon nap.

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