Making Time and Space for All You Need to Do at Home

How do you get work done at home?

By Melissa Kirsch

Welcome. On a recent virtual visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, I stopped into the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a series of dollhouse-scale dioramas, created by Narcissa Niblack Thorne in the 1930s and ’40s, depicting dozens of “period rooms”: a mid-19th-century New York parlor; the living room of an old Cape Cod cottage; an English drawing room of the Georgian period. Peering into these perfectly constructed spaces, where eensy pewter mugs hang just so in the cupboard and the sunlight is always slanting in at the right angle, I could imagine my way out of my own four walls.

Whether we go out for work or walking, these days many of us are spending a lot of time in the same place, with the same people — the people we live with, and our own chattering minds. Pam B. wrote from Bethlehem, Penn., to ask:

My husband is retiring at the end of January. My company offices remain closed, probably until June or July, so I am working from home. How do you stay focused working in the house when your spouse/significant other/children are NOT working and doing whatever they like?

It’s essential, if you are to get anything done at all in a coworking-from-home situation, to set boundaries with your cohabitants. Claim a space as your office, whether an actual room or a corner of one. Since Pam is concerned about distractions coming from her soon-to-be-retired husband and not, say, from small children, she can set work hours and request not to be bothered during them.

Of course, scheduling time for breaks is important too: “I’m working from 9 to noon,” Pam might tell her husband to keep him from interrupting her work to ask where the flour is (he’ll no doubt be in the sourdough stage for a month or two). If you establish a clear break time, everyone knows that at 12 p.m. it’s time to step away from the screens and eat turkey sandwiches, take a walk or siesta.

And if you need to block out sounds while you’re working, there are many wonderful white noise apps available for creating the illusion of a room of one’s own. (Noise-cancelling headphones are useful but can be pricey, and you might not feel like investing in more stuff right now.)

If you’re feeling a little too much in your own home or head this weekend, do check out the Thorne Miniature Rooms; they’re wonderful. The dollhouse is perhaps too on-the-nose a metaphor for being at home these days, but I do like it as an example of what Susan Stewart, in her book “On Longing,” calls “profound interiority”: “Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse’s aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: center within center, within within within.”

For a pretty thrilling experience of dollhouse-as-metaphor, add HBO’s “Sharp Objects” to your queue.

My colleague, the Times art director Jaspal Riyait, recommended the piano music of Hania Rani in her best of 2020, and I enthusiastically second that: The album “Esja” is beautiful.

And after reading James Poniewozik’s review of “Dickinson,” I’m definitely going to stream it this weekend.

Tell us.

Many of you have been working from home for many months now. What’s your advice for Pam B.? What are your tricks for getting quiet and privacy when they’re in short supply? Write to us: [email protected] Include your full name, age and location. We’re At Home. We’ll read every letter sent. As always, more ideas for leading a good life, with others or on your own, appear below. See you next week.

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