This is my typical morning routine: Get up at 7:45 a.m., shower, brush my teeth, skincare, splash on some cologne, put on my shoes and I’m out the door. I walk to the train station, pass right by and keep going a few more blocks. But now, I turn back around, right past the train station again and back into my apartment to get ready for a day of work.
For millions, work from home (WFH) has become the new normal overnight. As our lives change and our homes become both our place of solace and of salary, creating a partition between the two becomes more difficult and it can lead to decreased productivity and overall happiness. Ramona Clifton, LCSW, CPC, a coach and therapist based in Brooklyn recommends sticking to your daily routine as much as possible while practicing safe and healthy measures (i.e. shelter in place and social distancing).
“When people say ‘stick your routine as much as possible’, they’re saying ‘organize your time in similar ways,'” she says. “The most important concept here is to create boundaries.” Humans need some sort of structure in their day-to-day lives and creating physical boundaries between home and work leads to mental boundaries that help us create that structure. Hence, “commuting to work” by taking a walk in the morning before sitting down at the computer.
But I could’ve just worn sweatpants. I’m working from home, after all, so why bother? In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that clothes have a symbolic meaning which can influence the way we think, a term that they dub ‘enclothed cognition.’ When a white coat was associated with a doctor, participants who donned it showed an increase in attention but did not show any difference in attention when a white coat was associated with a painter.
“In plain language, that means that we give clothes meaning,” Clifton explains. She says that our clothes are part of our daily ritual and these rituals become ingrained in our behavior. So, when we get dressed as if we’re headed into the office, it gives our minds a cue that we’re preparing for work. She says, “As an example, think of when you’re expecting to take a sip of tea, but instead it’s actually soda. You don’t realize how much you were expecting tea until it’s not tea. Our minds work so much in the background to prepare us for what we expect.” That is to say, if we’re preparing ourselves for work, dressed in clothes that we would work in, our minds then expect ourselves to work. While that could mean you’d be productive (or at least attentive) wearing a white lab coat at your home-cum-office, the broader implications mean that the clothes you associate with going to work can help you get into the appropriate mindset for hunkering down from nine to five.
Clifton recommends organizing your day as you would at the office, scheduling times for certain tasks, slotting in breaks where necessary and putting in time for socializing (distantly, of course). Nolen Strals, a graphic designer based in Baltimore, Maryland agrees and takes that last step one further than most and actually wears Dickies coveralls. “The great thing about it is that you can still wear sweatpants all day,” he jokes. “It’s such a different outfit than how I normally dress, but it helps to put me in a different mindset.”
Though it may not be what he actually would wear daily, Strals has proactively adopted it as a work uniform which helps his brain prepare for work. “When my girlfriend gets home, it feels kind of silly to be wearing this thing on for too long. I say, ‘alright, it’s time to change and put on some normal clothes.'” To him, it feels like a ritual to don the coveralls in the morning and doff them when work is done. It’s similar to how you would change outfits once you’re home, even if it’s just taking off your shoes. Or like getting ready to going out on the town, changing your clothes to prepare for certain activities, whether it’s work, home, or a virtual happy hour, helps the brain to switch gears.
I’m still learning how to create these boundaries and figuring out what works best for me. Dickies coveralls won’t be my own personal solution, but it worked for Strals and it might work for you, too. I’m not gonna pretend like wearing certain clothes is the same as therapy or counseling. But anything we can do to create that separation of work and home, even if it’s a mental one, is helpful. Plus it’s cheaper than therapy.