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How do I balance keeping my home livable and getting work done?

No matter your living situation, you don’t need to face housework alone

An open laptop flashing notifications sits on top of a pile of dirty laundry. Illustration.

Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s advice column; today, our columnist answers questions about our relationships with our neighbors. (The last column explored getting along with your neighbors while sheltering in place.) Other house-related dilemmas? Fill out the question form.

I know that, even while we’re stuck working at home (those of us who are fortunate enough to still have jobs and not to be facing down danger every day as front-line workers), it’s a good idea to have some sort of work-life balance; to keep a work space separate from an eating space or a relaxing space, if you possibly can; to keep things tidy and under control, so you don’t feel stressed out just by existing in a chaotic space. But I’m finding that my energy, motivation, and ability to focus are all really low now that I’m staying at home all the time, with the result that I’m running quite a bit behind on both paid work and housework. My apartment becomes more and more chaotic as I try to put my energy into my job, but if I put aside time to make my living space more habitable, I need a rest afterward and so get further behind on work duties.

How can I find a better balance between getting work done and keeping my space pleasant and livable when I’m constantly running on empty?

—Chaotic in Connecticut

When I started working from home, I expected that spending so much time in my apartment would inspire me to keep my space especially tidy and might even motivate me to get to long-deferred projects like organizing my closets or alphabetizing my books. Instead, the opposite happened: Having to mask up and sanitize every time I go outside caused me to procrastinate on taking out the trash and recycling, and eating all my meals at home caused the dishes to multiply faster than usual. Meanwhile, like you and so many others, I have less energy these days and am finding it harder to focus, so the last thing I want to do during or after a long workday is housework. For those who are sharing space with and/or taking care of kids, partners, or housemates, the challenges are multiplied.

Some things that might help:

Don’t feel like you have to face housework alone. If you’re sharing a home with people who are old enough to help, the housework burden should be shared fairly. Some tasks, like making or cleaning up after a meal, naturally lend themselves to teamwork. Other tasks can be divided up for people to tackle on their own time. The general principles of concrete goals and tangible reward systems apply whether you’re living by yourself or with partners, children, or roommates, and, in my experience, people of all ages can be motivated by screen time and food.

If you live alone, you have to create your own company. I have a mental block about doing the dishes, so I’ve started FaceTiming a friend for company and moral support when I do them at the end of the day. Sometimes we even do dishes together. It can be strangely motivating to have someone to semi-sarcastically say “Wow, AMAZING!” when you hold the phone over the sink at the end of the night to demonstrate how impressively empty it is.

Focus on small, specific tasks (like “sweep the floor”) rather than big, overwhelming ones (like “clean the apartment”). Set yourself up to succeed! Thinking small means that you can use housework as a way to periodically break up your workday and check something off your to-do list rather than as a daunting mountain of labor that you have to climb at the end of the day. Whenever your eyes are glazing over from staring at your computer, get up and put on some energizing music and pick a small domestic task to accomplish. Combat some mess for the length of two or three songs. (Recently, I first heard the song “Clean Up Woman” when singer Betty Wright passed away, and I’ve been sweeping along to its up-tempo cleaning double entendres.)

Designate a chaos area. Since cleaning up after kids—or trying to get them to clean up after themselves—can be a never-ending task, one way to battle exhaustion is to know when to surrender. Depending on the size of your space, you can simply accept that a certain corner or an entire room will be a permanent LEGO pile or blanket fort. Accepting and containing a certain level of constant mess can cut down on cleaning-related conflict and despair.

Maintain an oasis. The flip side of the chaos area: If possible, make sure there’s one small part of your home that’s always orderly, no matter what. You and everyone else need to know that this particular corner of your home must be forever calm. That way, even on the most hectic days, you can retreat to the reading chair or the kitchen table, put on some noise-canceling headphones, and feel like you’re in a micro-environment that’s at least somewhat conducive to productivity and peace.

As much as possible, think about caring for your living space as a way of caring for yourself rather than as a second job. Housework is serious physical work. At the same time, there is real joy in showering in a clean tub or falling into a bed with freshly washed sheets. There’s even a kind of pleasure in sitting down to work in a space devoid of yesterday’s junk mail and multiple cups of cold coffee. Often putting in just ten or 15 minutes of effort is enough to make at least part of your living space feel calmer and brighter, which in turn will make at least part of you feel calmer and brighter. And that is ultimately the goal.

Give yourself cues to rest. A friend who found herself falling asleep on the couch too many times has set a daily alarm on her phone to remind her when to move from the living room to the bedroom. I have a copy of a book by Marjorie Hillis, Work Ends at Nightfall, and I keep it on a bookshelf at eye level with the cover facing out. It reminds me that, at a certain point, no matter how much I did or didn’t get done that day, work needs to be over. Pick a time that you’ll stop work and start to wind down every day, and hold yourself to it. Try to see rest as something you need and deserve, no matter what, rather than as something you have to earn or postpone.

Finally, know when to break the rules. Even though conventional wisdom recommends maintaining clear work-play distinctions when working from home, sometimes accepting some boundary blurring can be a good thing. One of my friends recommends answering work emails on your phone while reclining on the couch—she finds that it’s good for her body to get a break from sitting at her desk all day, and she writes faster and more efficient responses than she would if she were working on her laptop. Another friend recommends working in the bathtub for similar reasons. Several of my friends have embraced knitting during Zoom meetings. Meanwhile, ever since I was a teenager, I’ve done my best writing while wearing a bathrobe and sitting in bed, and I don’t see that changing. Instead of beating myself up about this and trying to make myself show up to my desk every morning in business casual, I’ve decided to think about living in loungewear as a privilege rather than as a moral failing.

Feel free to ignore the prevailing “working from home” advice if it’s guilt-tripping you more than it’s helping you. This world contains a handful of problems that can be solved by deciding they’re not problems. Maybe some of yours can be fixed this way, too.

Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.