"We human beings are social beings." – The Dalai Lama
I'll be the first to admit it: when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and suddenly everyone was ordered to stay in their homes, I wasn't very affected by it.
I don't work in an office. I know how to cook for myself and my family. All that stuff that everyone freaked out about? I was doing it already.
I don't mean to minimize anyone who was affected by it, economically or from a health standpoint. Far from it. But as far as my work was concerned, it just didn't really bug me that much.
There was, however, one sticking point that bothered me: all retail and food service businesses shuttered their dine-in services.
It might sound like I'm contradicting myself: "I wasn't affected by lockdown, except when I was affected by lockdown."
But while my business continued to thrive, and I barely missed a beat in the face of global panic and uncertainty, my mental health was about to be tested.
I wasn't allowed to go anywhere.
If you work from home, you probably handle lack of human interaction better than most people. Some of us would call this a "feature" of working for ourselves, not a "bug." And yet, there's a different kind of energy that infuses in your brain and your body when you get out of the house and work among people.
That human connection keeps me going. Once per week, I would pack a bag and go work out of a library, or a coffee shop, or a bookstore. I wanted to be in a different environment where other humans were milling about; humans that aren't my children, that is.
Those routines helped my sanity, and I missed them sorely when they were taken away from me. Since the COVID panic has begun to die down, a local coffee shop down the road from my house has opened up, giving me an option to get out of the house and be "among the living," as I like to say.
If you work from home, it may be time to start planning for a day out of the office, where you can get some of that energy and activate your creative mind.
"But I'm an introvert!"
Guess what? Me too.
Yes, I sing in a band once a month. Yes, I was in theater in high school (the world never saw a more charismatic Albert J. Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie than Wisconsin Lutheran High School's theater department did in 2003 – eat your heart out, Dick Van Dyke). And yes, I did pretty well as a bartender and a server, where social talents can make a positive difference in your tips at the end of the night.
But in some situations, I'm just not a people person.
I learned this when I attended the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon, back in the summer of 2012. I thought I would spend the time rubbing shoulders with influencers and making life-changing connections that would take my business to new heights!
Instead, I found myself walking around alone, eating alone, desperately trying to fit in without leaving my comfort zone. I was so self-conscious, I missed out on a whole lot of opportunities. By the end of the weekend, I skipped out on most of the festivities to sit in my hotel room, where I didn't have to deal with my social anxiety.
So I get it. Being around people can really cause a lot of stress and self-consciousness... and that doesn't make for a productive workday.
But I'm not asking you to share your work with anybody. You don't have to talk to anyone. There's no need to put yourself on display. Grab a quiet table in the corner of a coffee shop and put your headphones on, I don't care.
Just being out in a change of scenery where humanity is going on all around you can do amazing things to your brain and your mood.
Low-barrier ways to work outside the home
But how do you do it? Some of these will sound obvious. Others, maybe not so much.
Whether you're working elsewhere or expanding the horizons of your downtime, these tips will offer ways for you to break out of the lonely funk that occurs when you work from home and suddenly find yourself not interacting with humanity for weeks at a time.
- Pick a day and write from somewhere else. This is my favorite method. I grab a small table at a library or a coffee shop, order something, and put my headphones on. It doesn't matter that I don't talk to anyone. I just get out for a little while.
- Get some takeout for lunch. Skip the meal delivery services. Either go get it yourself or go dine indoors at a place that's open. Just break up your day by being out in the sunshine and walking around people. A few minutes can go a long way.
- Trickster Cards night. When the lockdown kicked in, a few buddies and I instituted a Cards Night that has continued for almost 3 months now. Using the Trickster Cards app (available on your phone or your computer), we spend a few hours on Thursday nights playing Spades or Up and Down the River together while throwing back a few drinks and having some laughs. The best part is two of us are in Wisconsin, one is in South Dakota, and one is in Colorado. We keep a video chat window open on the side so we can joke around while we play. It's the next best thing to cards in person, and it still allows us to break up the monotony and interact with each other.
- Get a cup of coffee for an hour. Don't overthink things. Get a cup of coffee and bring your Kindle (or your paper book, I guess), and read at the coffee shop. Better yet, smile at a few people when they walk past you. That small connection does wonders for your brain.
- The Artist's Date. This is one habit that I try to build as much as I can, though it's very difficult to do for some people. In The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, she talks about the idea that you need to detach from work and do something to fill your creative well. It's something that only you do with yourself, like go to the museum, or go walk along a beach. I live in suburban Wisconsin, so lately that has meant taking in a movie by myself. It sounds weird to tell you to do something by yourself as a means of being among the living, but you're going to go out and about and be a part of the world. And it really does work.
If you plan to go somewhere and work for the day, it helps to have a few different places in mind and at your disposal, so that you can pick and choose from among your options depending on how you're feeling that week. Here are my favorite destinations:
- Coffee shops. Local is better, but Starbucks works too. These places are built for creative types like you and me with our laptops and our hipster beards. You'll never get a weird look from anyone at a coffee shop if you're writing.
- Libraries. You might be surprised by how many libraries are in your local area. I love working out of a library because A) they're quiet, and sometimes I just want quiet without the headphones, B) there are lots of books, and C) there are generally a lot of windows. That's a perfect concoction for a creatively fulfilling day.
- A bookstore. Even better for being around a lot of books because they will be more contemporary fare, bookstores usually have cafe sections where you can get a cup of coffee, tea, or a bottle of water and just enjoy the activities of humans searching for their next great read while you write the next great read.
Some rules to follow
It's not all sunshine and roses. If you go out to do some work and change up your atmosphere, you'd be remiss if you didn't follow these rules:
1. Buy stuff
If you're taking free Wi-Fi from somewhere, drop a few bucks. At a coffee shop, you can buy a cup of joe, or a cookie, or a bottle of water. And do it regularly. Don't be a mooch. It's bad form.
2. Be prepared
Have a power cord ready, just in case. If you're prone to allergies, have a handkerchief or a small package of tissues readily available. Make sure your headphones are charged, if they need to be. Bring a charged battery pack to plug into, just in case there are no outlets available. Nothing kills creativity like unpreparedness.
3. Don't hog everything
Nobody likes the person who uses both outlets by their table for the entire day. Share. Use them, but know when to let someone else use them. And pick the smallest table you can get away with. If there's a two-seater available, don't spread out at the six-person table. It's disrespectful to other patrons and to the business that needs to attract those paying customers.
4. Smile at people
I'm amazed by how many ignore this rule. I mentioned it earlier, and I'm going to mention it here again. We're all human beings doing our best. You can make a huge difference in someone's day just by offering up a polite smile. Quit ignoring each other. You don't have to have a big conversation or anything. Just turn up the corners of your mouth on occasion. It'll help your mood, too, and a good mood fosters creativity.
Can you get away from your home office?
I love my home office – from its large wooden desk that I built to the no-shoes-necessary dress code to the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness hanging on the wall.
It's a perfectly-calibrated space for me.
But I can't work in here every day. I have to take breaks and refresh my brain and my eyes. You likely need to as well.
Be deliberate about changing up your routine, and you might be surprised at how well the words start flowing from your fingertips.