Remote Work is Fucking Hard

Many people are unfamiliar with the practice of working remotely, and some are finding aspects of it challenging — especially as they encounter procrastination and task-avoidance. Plenty of good writing has already addressed some surface-level problems, such as equipping yourself with good ergonomic furniture and tools, setting boundaries with the little or big people with whom you cohabit, video conferencing tips and tricks, and advice to over-communicate.

I want, instead, to address a deeper layer, to examine the uncomfortable emotions that can unexpectedly surface during remote work — something that, as many people are newly discovering, is a frustrating and unsettling part of working from home. I would like to share what I have learned from examining my procrastination and task-avoidance coping ploys, as, for me, their roots extend deeper than just to the mere adult problems of time management, self motivation, and goal setting. These uncomfortable states of being, I have learned, appear uninvited, and a cluster of emotional baggage accompanies them — it’s always some combination of feelings of insecurity, frustration, anger, melancholy, and petulance. These acute emotional experiences have an oomph to them that can disrupt my day, and often in my most crucial productive hours. On April 10th of 2020, a Friday, I had one of these disruptive and disorienting emotional quakes.

That Friday began favorably and productively, with a night of good rest, an early morning, and a video chat over breakfast with a close friend and colleague. After we broke bread together, I hung up and then completed some mundane mechanical tasks for work that I had identified the night before. I had lined up these relatively minor tasks, to start my workday, getting them out of the way, before leading into the big rock of the day: a project to verify a bug fix that I had implemented. Though implementing the bug fix was quick, verifying my work had significant hurdles because of a lack of test automation, slow feedback cycles, and data dependencies not easily isolated from shared infrastructure. I had struggled with my desire to avoid this verification task for almost ten days prior, by allowing other tasks and requests for help interrupt and distract me. My avoidance culminated on this Friday, because I no longer felt comfortable deferring the verification work. The incomplete work, and my expectations of myself, were weighing on me.

The workday went well until the afternoon, when I faced verifying the bug fix, and the difficulty of accomplishing what I had set out to do dawned on me. My productivity ground to a halt. I began compulsively sorting my “to-buy” book lists and obsessing over book reviews — standard Parnell avoidance strategies. After a few hours of this task avoidance, I realized I was procrastinating. Then, my anxieties took hold of me with exaggerated fears of losing my job, and intrusive, negative self-talk about how unworthy of it I was. One persistent internal message was that I wasn’t hard-working enough or intelligent enough — for if I were, I would have not only solved the slow feedback cycles or the data dependencies that blocked manual verification but I would have finished verification (whether automated or manual) days ago!

A part of me — the adult part of me — vaguely sensed that this internal tumult was deeper, older, and much more petulant than was typical of my temperament. I suspected, through the fog of incoherent emotions, that the downward spiral was my inner child1, affectionately named “Little Parnell,” demanding attention. I followed this impulse and decided that I needed first to comfort myself, so that I could pay attention to what Little Parnell wanted to tell me via unignorable emotions.

I have a ritual for comforting myself that always works: taking a hot, sitting shower, hugging my knees. This ritual comes from my twenties, at the height of my experimentation with recreational drugs. When I would get too high and put my body in such a state of elevated stimulation that I couldn’t sleep at all for two nights in a row, I would comfort myself with this shower ritual, in the early morning hours, when I wished I could sleep. The disgust I felt for wasting my life, which always followed these debauched experiences, gnawed at me — and these shower rituals seemed to soothe me and cleanse me.

I think the hot sitting shower comforts me because it resembles the womb — warm and watery, fetal-like, ablutionary, and private.

On that Friday in April, once in this comforting environment of the shower, away from work and away from my tyrannical expectations of Self, I felt safe enough to allow myself emotional expression. Soon, emotions bubbled up from the memory of a childhood experience — one in which I was helping my father install an electric fence to prevent the horses from escaping our family ranch near Gardnerville, NV. On that day, I made a mistake or did something wrong. My dad reproached me: “Goddamnit, son!”

I created a story based on that experience (and on others that I won’t recount), and I have held onto that story for a long time. And that story is that I am not good at doing things right. Or that something is subtly, intrinsically wrong with me, and that is the reason I make mistakes when it seems people around me do not. As this story was taking root within me, many years ago, a lack of rigor in my homeschooling only seemed to confirm it later in life, when I would struggle with traditional measures of success in school.

Over the past five years I have remade myself and have put that old story to bed by developing my intellect, challenging myself, and rewiring myself for behaviors I once thought outside my reach. However, I had not processed the early childhood trauma at the root of the story. For years, moments of impending failure (real or not) would spark a deep pang of unworthiness and self-doubt inside me. I was experiencing just such a moment with this verification task in front of me and with my inability to make meaningful progress on it.

What was blocking my progress was not a defect in my productivity or my ability or my willingness. Instead, conspiring to block my progress were several factors outside the scope of the bug fix — factors that are the responsibility of a team and that require separately scheduled time and energy to address. To compensate, within the shadow of my insecurities and anxieties, I had in this case and in many others like it donned the Hero archetype — by taking on responsibility beyond the original scope of my work. In response to a subconscious desire to feel a sense of worth, I had developed a persistent pattern of inflating the scope of my projects to garner recognition from my peers. This had led to a stubborn, unhealthy relationship to my work.

In the fetal position, in my hot shower, I allowed myself to have what I now call the “Smeagol2 Talk” with my anguished inner child, to acknowledge the hurt and the sadness I had once felt and still carried in my body. I dubbed it the “Smeagol Talk” because I gave my inner child a voice when turning my head to the left and the adult part of me (that can sound like my father) a voice when turning my head to the right. This experience with myself had a tangible result: I felt relief.

Afterward, I felt clearer about what I needed to do to produce movement on my work project: (1) I needed to accept the misalignment in my expectations for myself and what was workable given the timing constraints, the testing infrastructure the team had, and other factors outside of my control. (2) I needed to verify some small, easily hand-tested parts of the bug fix and then merge it into the product. And (3) I needed to articulate to the engineering management the impediment to quality that our lack of testing infrastructure and support provides for this component, so that we can later fix it, together. Good work does not require heroic feats! The opposite, actually. Good work requires sustainable, plodding effort and attention; deep work; few distractions; and care. Good work has much more in common with a climb up a mountain than it does with a sprint.

My encounter with the intersection of my inner child, on the one hand, and my work and task-avoidant anxiety, on the other, inspired me to write this essay. And I want to introduce one overlooked idea: that remote work for people who live alone creates a “silent forest” effect. What I mean by this is that, lacking both the background buzz of an office and the discrete phase transition of a commute, unprocessed emotions and unexamined parts of the self are likely to bubble up from the nervous system and from the psyche to supplant your colleagues as the new normal “background buzz.”

These unprocessed emotions and unexamined parts of oneself can present themselves as: despair, crippling insecurity, powerful guilt, deep procrastination, and a pernicious self-loathing at one’s inability to do anything but get swept away by the current of these powerful, internal, emotive forces.

Given the strength of these disorienting, unconscious, and sometimes non-adult forces — bubbling out within this silent forest of our home work environment — how does one navigate to feeling clear and productive?

The answer begins here: Soothe yourself. Until one attends to the deeper emotional issues that are asserting themselves in this setting, personal productivity and executive attention will continue to be a struggle. To procrastinate less and to feel engaged in the work you want or need to do means to acknowledge, understand, and compassionately examine your emotions. And self-soothing enables this introspection.

How does one soothe oneself? And once relaxed, how does one then expand this practice into a fuller, longer-term form of intimate self-care? I ask this second question because, as I have learned, self-soothing is the on-ramp to self-care.

I like to begin the process of self-soothing by stopping what I am doing and collecting myself with a mantra: “I need to take care of myself.”

I have a few suggestions for the self-care and introspective process:

  • First, soothe and calm yourself with whatever activities help your nervous system feel at ease. Here are some suggestions:
    • Breathe in slowly through your nose and exhale completely. Repeat. (This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system3, the “brakes” of your autonomic nervous system.)
    • Sit down in a hot, long shower and hug your knees.
    • Lie down in bed with your favorite blankie.
    • Take a nap.
    • Hug yourself (this causes your body to release oxytocin, which helps calm the nervous system).
    • Doodle: don’t think about what to draw, just draw.
    • Get outside: go for a walk; garden; lie down under a tree and look up.
  • Talk to yourself while going for a walk.
  • Run, dance, or exercise.
  • Journal. Free-form journaling can help, but I’ve found prompt journaling4 to work even more effectively. Journaling in response to the following two questions has helped me considerably:
    • What do I feel anxious about?
    • Do I have any upsets, griefs, or hurts I need to acknowledge and understand?

Another sneaky feeling you may need to address is the meta-anxiety that sometimes arises from the part of you that is tyrannizing you over your lack of productivity or engagement or progress with the external obligation you feel avoidant about. I chose the term “meta-anxiety” because you experience anxiety about the anxiety that undergirds procrastination!

The development of self-care instincts and the establishment of self-nurturing habits can help to short-circuit this self-reinforcing anxious loop. The loop begins with feeling anxious about the task at hand. Then, as you respond to that anxiety with avoidance, you soon take notice of your procrastination. Finally, you feel more anxiety, which compounds the original feeling. And the cycle starts all over again — this time at an even higher level of anxiety.

The more automatic you can make breaking this loop — thanks to your established rituals of self-care — the faster you can grasp the root of whatever is causing your anxious feelings to begin with — before they get so loud that you can’t keep your attention trained on the important tasks of your adult life.

The key here is to prioritize your self-care often enough that it anneals as an instinct or a habit. A self-preservation instinct.

Procrastination and anxiety can serve as exhausting but indispensable signals that it is time to give yourself some undivided attention and to prioritize your essential well-being.

Credits

Thanks to Audie Alcorn at ATX Tutoring & Academic Services for reading drafts and providing editing feedback.

Thanks to Stephanie Smiley, LMSW for reading drafts and providing feedback.


  1. “Inner child”, Wikipedia, accessed 2020-07-09, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_child; Alain de Botton, “Partner-as-Child”, in An Emotional Education, 143-4.

  2. Smeagol, a character in the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers film, has a split-personality conversation with his “shadow” named Gollum.

  3. Christopher Bergland, “Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve”, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/diaphragmatic-breathing-exercises-and-your-vagus-nerve, accessed 2020-07-15

  4. Alain de Botton, “Philosophical Meditation,” in An Emotional Education, 67-71.