5 Ways to make telecommuting better


I have this idea that I am going to start working from home. I tried to go into the office. But the only alone time I have in my day is the time I'm not with the kids, and if I spend my alone time with other people, then I don't have alone time and I start to panic, and I do things like tell the guy in the cube next to me that he can't talk to me.

1. Get a spot where you can concentrate.
So I tried working from home, but then I started feeling like I am the most alone person in the world. So I thought I'd change it up a little; I'd work from home, but the farmer's home.

I call him to tell him I'm coming to his house early.

“How early?” he asks.


“Don't you have to work today?”

“I'm not going to the office any more. I don't want to talk to people.”

There is a beat of silence, and I think the farmer is going to say something. Or maybe the silence is long enough that he is thinking I am going to talk. He has asked me to not talk over him, but I have a hard time telling if it is his turn to talk or mine. I start to panic because the rhythm of conversation is getting irregular, so I say, “Okay. Bye.” And I hang up before he can say anything else. I note to myself that this is the fourth conversation in a row that I did not talk over him.

I stop at the gas station by his house. I have enough gas to get to his house, but not enough gas to get lost and get to his house, which shouldn't happen, but if it did, it would be bad because I still do not have a winter coat. I am not sure why I don't have a winter coat. I think it is because it's so cold that I can't stand being outside for more than five or ten seconds. So if I'm only going to be outside for a few seconds then I don't need a coat. The farmer keeps telling me how dangerous it is to travel without a winter coat. I show him I'm paying attention to the dangers of the cold by being sure to not run out of gas on a remote country road.

2. Have close proximity to a coffee source.
I get to his house. I put my stuff down in the kitchen and I make coffee.

The farmer comes in. He kisses me hello. Then he wipes up where I spilled water by the coffee maker. At one point, we had an argument about his wiping up around me all the time.

“I never wipe the table at dinner where you spill,” I said.

“What?” he said. “Are you kidding? I never spill.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don't. You spill almost every time you do anything in the kitchen. That is not normal.”

“I spill more than other people?”

“Yes. Adults don't spill.”

Once he told me this, I noticed that I actually spill something every meal. Sometimes two or three times. I never noticed that other people don't do it until the farmer told me. So now, him wiping up the water on the counter feels intimate: he knows me so well.

3. Have good food, fast Internet, and a sofa for avoiding both.
He tells me that he is in the middle of moving pigs, and he'll come back to the house for lunch.

I want to ask him if he’s working on getting an Internet connection because if I’m going to work from home from his home, I need Internet. But he always feels like I'm pushing, and then he pushes back. So I decide to ask him while he's eating lunch. He is easier to talk to if he's walking or eating and it's too cold to walk outside.

I lie on the farmer's sofa and think. The fields are white and rolling, with bits of old corn stalks poking out. The cattle are far off, almost at the horizon: brown dots moving slowly to yellow dots of hay. I stare out the window long enough that the farmer drives by on the tractor. Stops at the barn. Pets the donkey. Comes in for lunch.

Since this is an impromptu visit, there is no food to eat except beef. That's all he keeps in his house. Well, beef and Frosted Flakes and Dora the Explorer cookies, from the last time that I came here with my kids.

He cooks hamburgers for us.

He tells me he did not notch the pigs’ ears in the last litter because he was so distracted dealing with me. He tells me he has never had a litter of pigs unnotched. Ever. Unnotched is not his word. It's mine. I forget the word he uses.

4. Have a notebook for ideas that you save for when you're with people.
Then he sits down to lunch and I try to not bring up difficult stuff to talk about because I can see that he is already unhinged that the pigs are unnotched.

But after three bites I cannot hold back: “I have a list of things we need to do so I can move into your house.”

He looks at me. Puts his fork down. Takes a deep breath. “Let's see it.”

“I have to read it to you.”

He looks. It's in shorthand. Not regular shorthand but the shorthand I invented to take notes at school because the way I got through school was by memorizing every lecture word for word and then regurgitating it to teachers on essay tests.

I find that my shorthand is also good for writing private notes to myself. Now I can have my list out, at the table, but the farmer cannot read it so I can tell him only the amount of things I think he can handle without going nuts over how hard it is for me to move to his house.

I tell him, “Well. The Internet. That's an easy one.”

He picks up his fork. Takes a bite. “Okay. What else?”

“The heating has to work.”

“Okay. We have to talk about that. About what it means to you to be working.”

“Okay. Let's talk about that now.”

“First, tell me what else is on the list.”

“Not that much.”

“What do you mean not that much? I see you have crazy writing down the whole page. That looks long.”

He's right.

I tell him it's a secret.

He shakes his head and laughs.

I tell myself I have to develop a shorthand sign for manure, because I need him to not put it so close to the house. I think it's causing a problem with flies. Which I already have a shorthand sign for because I had a history professor who always used the phrase “flies in the face of . . . .”

5. Find balance: Calm/exciting, chatter/quiet, people/no people.
After lunch we sit on the sofa and talk about grazing. He is thinking of grazing pigs with cattle this summer. People don't usually do it. He is not sure how he wants to manage it. He likes to have interesting projects on the farm. He is curious and likes the quirky edge of farm life. But he is always trying to figure out how to balance his curiosity with his need for stability.

He says, “Okay. I have to go back out now.”

I say, “Five more minutes.”

He says, “You're having a hard time transitioning to work, aren't you?”

He says, “Do you want me to lie on top of you?”

I nod yes.

So I lie on the sofa and he puts the cushions on top of me and then lies on top of the cushions, and the pressure from the cushions is like a big squeeze without the social input of feeling a person as well.

The farmer discovered this trick by reading Temple Grandin’s technique for working with cattle. It works with me, too.

Then he leaves and starts sorting pigs, and I sit down at the table and start writing.

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  1. JG
    JG says:

    it’s nice that he uses the same technique on you as he does on an anxious, panicky cow. I think you may have found the perfect (unflappable) man for you and your children.

  2. Yvette
    Yvette says:

    Too funny. Temple’s book was fascinating. When my daughter has trouble falling asleep I lay beside her and just hold her (no talking). Takes about 10 minutes, these days, for her breathing to do deeper and then I can quietly leave.

    I’ve been taking massage lessons and we learned that even simple compressions can induce a sympathetic relaxation response. Easy, to do. (In some Asian massage techniques you use your whole body on top of a client for compressions.) Calms the mind, too.

    I like working at someone else’s home sometimes, if it’s quiet(or even a cafe, in the city). What’s great is a big table to spread out on, then reorganize it all and then put it back into one pile (with urgent on top). Looks like you did a lot and only takes about an hour. Works for me. But home sometimes has too many distractions.

    By the way, loved your video conference on Managing Up. It was fun, and thanks for answering our questions on line!

    • Jack Tate
      Jack Tate says:

      OMG, This is so true! As soon as you tell people that you are at home working, that’s it. They will pester you all day, forgetting that your are in fact working.


  3. Alisa Bowman
    Alisa Bowman says:

    P, as someone who has worked from home for years, my biggest tip to you is this: don’t tell friends and family that you are doing it, get caller ID, get a second phone line just for work, and put your desk somewhere so someone at the front door can’t see you working. Various people interpret “I work at home” to mean, “Yes, I would LOVE to go shopping with you” and “yes I would love for you to drop your baby off so I can watch him” and “Yes, of course, just hang out over here all day long.”

    • Dan Stonbarger
      Dan Stonbarger says:

      Hi P, I’d have to say that I agree with Alisa. Many people don’t understand what it means to work from home and what it requires to be successful at it. It does take focus just like any other workplace environment I’ve realized.

      I started working from home once I started in the real estate business and thought that i could get a lot of stuff done, but with my daughters coming home and wanting to play with their Dad, it was hard for me to not want to spend that quality time with them and this affected my workflow. I did this for about 4 months and I realized that I had to get a small satellite office to work out of for me to be productive.

      I still have my office at home, but I needed to have a place where I could meet clients in a shared setting with other professionals. I have found that my wife is much better at working from home than I am.

      Other people that I know that work from home work in their pajamas and others I know actually get dressed good enough to run errands if they needed to at the drop of a dime. I tend to agree with getting dressed, shaven and ready to leave a moments notice if I get a call and need to meet a client at a neutral location.

      I certainly am a fan of working from home and believe that you have a set boundaries and expectations so that you are productive and focused on getting things accomplished to be successful.

  4. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    Well. deah, there are good tips for you and other live wires, but for the more typical home worker, let me give all the good folks here the best advice. I am an authority, I have been self unemployed, but mostly employed, since 1991:

    Here is the big tip – get ready –

    Put your damned shoes on when you work at home, you take perform a demanding professional job like writing technical shit or code in your socks or bare feet. Get dressed. eat breakfast, but a fine espresso machine if that does it for you. or something else connected to work.

    Clean your workspace, buy some (instant sunshine) from a friend with ADD teens that dont need that script anymore – for emergencies and deadlines only, it is G-ds gift – I hear….:)

    Dont waste your time on Facebook and twitter if you are supposed be writing code or analysis of the sector. If you are a new, :”social media consultant”, and you do get paid to use twitter and facebook, this is why America is in big trouble. Go get a real job welding or fixing plasma cutters.

    Put you shoes on, get your list done before your day’s end time – which means a list that has some semblance of sanity – because other shit happens.

    Put on your shoes, get dressed, no surfin, instant sunshine, get it?

    got it?

    Good. That will be $5.00 Brogran kiss my ASS.

    • Heru Muskita
      Heru Muskita says:

      Unless your work include using social medias, avoid them at all cost. Most of us do not realize how much time we waste on social medias. We thought it is going to be short but the fact is they are design so that we stay there as long as possible.

    • Alora
      Alora says:

      In seven companies, across four industries, in three states, making six figures per year, I have never, ever left my shoes on. And blaming social media for your inability to stay focused is a cop out.

      • Kiarra
        Kiarra says:

        I could be wrong but I think the poster who said put your shoes on is male, and those saying they never leave their shoes on are female… Just an observation. Alan’s advice to get dressed still makes sense though. For women, maybe, pack a purse and keep it next to you.

  5. From Wisconsin
    From Wisconsin says:

    Penelope, you’re going to have to learn to deal with the flies. That’s part of life on a farm, even if the manure isn’t close to the house. Also, now in Wisconsin, because some brainiac brought in the Japanese ladybugs to keep aphids out of the soybeans we have them everywhere in our houses as well.

    There are some things you just live with and accept. Just worry about the internet. That should be a priority.

  6. Shannon Coffey
    Shannon Coffey says:

    When I read “lie on top of you,” my first thought was: sex? Then I immediately knew it had to be the Grandin compression. That’s so cool. When I first heard of her device on NPR years ago, my first thought then was: Where do I get me one of those?

    P.S. Get a damn winter coat! You live in Wisconsin fer Chirst sakes. Frostbite is so not cool. ;^)

    • quitting weed
      quitting weed says:

      A lot of people have trouble with the working at the office vs. the working at home thing. But getting just the right brain state for writing is one of the tougher work challenges. It’s nice to be reminded I’m not alone in this.

  7. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    Well, Penelope,

    I should be reading your every post, ‘cuz I’ve missed some crucial chapters. Sorry. I’ve been very busy lately, just keeping up with my own stuff, and I started following one other post bedsides yours. Another writer, and she love you too. Her name is Justine.

    Anyway, seems you’re back with the farmer. I missed the chapters where that happened, and I went and told you it WOULDN’T! Actually, I said it wouldn’t be a conventional marriage. And now that I know he throws pillows over your body and then lies on them, and you, I guess I was right. But that said, “conventional” is so boring anyway.

    • ann
      ann says:

      you are a twit for that comment, i guess we should ignore you for your stupidity but then i think when people repeatedly ignore an idiot, the idiot becomes even more asinine .

  8. groovecat
    groovecat says:

    wow. you must be a good fcuk for “the farmer” to put up with all your bullsh*t.

    unless “the farmer” doesn’t know any better and fell in love with the first or second or third non farm fcuk he came across.

    please pardon my mis-spellings, as i only have the use of one arm/hand.

  9. Margarita
    Margarita says:

    I adore your writings on your cute yet somewhat dysfunctional relationship with the farmer. Of course, that’s only how it’s read at times, not how it might be in real life.

    Working at home can be easy but you can make it so easy that it starts getting troubling. Be wary and work hard. Good luck!

  10. cAROL
    cAROL says:

    Nice way of weaving in advice and personal story.

    A lot of people have trouble with the working at the office vs. the working at home thing. But getting just the right brain state for writing is one of the tougher work challenges. It’s nice to be reminded I’m not alone in this.

  11. M. Goerig
    M. Goerig says:

    I used to love to get X-rays at the dentist just to have that heavy lead apron put on me. I’ve always wanted to inherit one from a practice going out of business, or I hoped I’d happen across one at a garage sale.
    I like your logic for not having a winter coat but maybe put a blanket in your car. Just in case. Having enough gasoline does not mean your oil pan won’t run dry or you won’t get a flat or something.

  12. may
    may says:

    Hi P,

    Put some blankets in your car just in case!
    Have you thought about getting a massage chair, they are also nice and very relaxing.

  13. Erko
    Erko says:

    You need to find a good Niche to start working at home. As a Internet Marketer you should have a good website to help start your business.Good luck!

  14. Peter
    Peter says:

    Love your writing, Penelope?

    So straight from the gut’ish.

    Reading your stuff is like watching a great movie.

  15. Socorro Luna
    Socorro Luna says:

    He loves you! He knows you and what you need. He lets you come over to work. You are just getting adjusted to working at his home where there are no people–just one person…him.

    I like reading what you write. It is so real. I was going to send it to my friend who wants to work from home. Trouble is she would want a farmer, too.

  16. neko
    neko says:


    I need to find someone to do the couch cushions squeeze thing on me. I feel more relaxed & calm just imagining the sensation ….

    Any volunteers out there ?

  17. Rich Williams
    Rich Williams says:

    Penelope, your comments about yourself are brutally honest! Your so smart and have so many things going for you. Heck, I’m learning from your weaknesses and I’m 51 (that’s a secret between you and I – don’t tell anyone!).

    Love your blog – keep up the good work!

  18. justamouse
    justamouse says:

    Has the farmer read Joel Salatin’s SALAD BAR BEEF? Lots of farming projects for him in it. (Michael Pollan wrote about Salatin in OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA.)

    And put a blanket and a candle in your car, please.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The farmer has read both books. He has a great meat library that I go through slowly. Maybe I will start writing meat posts as career advice… you never know.


  19. Bob
    Bob says:

    You get that you’re different from most of us, don’t you? I’m amazed at how you function in this world. Wisconsin sounds like a beautiful place, and the farmer sounds like a real nice guy. Please buy a coat.

  20. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I’ve been telecommuting for three years now. I have one to add: Allow yourself to work in the fashion and at the time that is most productive to you – not how people who manage office workers demand you work. For instance, I feel like I’m the only successful professional in the world who is not a morning person. So I don’t work much in the morning. I check emails, figure out what I need to accomplish for the day, but not much more. It took me a LONG time to give myself that permission. For decades, knowledge workers have been expected to work like factory workers. But coming up with ideas is not the same as putting screw A into hole B all day. And yet we were expected to plug along from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

    I easily accomplish 3X the work that I did when I had to commute to an office (in about half the time). And I’m a much happier camper.

    • Cathy
      Cathy says:

      Hmmm…Far fewer people can work from home than think they can. (?)
      Penelope, buy a coat online. No need to leave the house.
      And as others have said, put blankets in the car.

      • Cathy
        Cathy says:

        PS. Penelope, did you actually ask the farmer if it would be ok for you to work at his place? As a courtesy? Hard to tell from the post…

  21. DD
    DD says:

    Penelope, do you really actually believe your logic for not buying a coat in Wisconsin in the winter, or is this some ploy to make us see you as super intelligent but charmingly lost-in-space? I had a friend who slid off the road at such an odd angle, was covered in snow, and not discovered for days. Dead, of course. And he was wearing a coat. How much credence are we supposed to give your business advice when you rationalize as you do? I’m saying this as one woman and mother to another, and not meaning to sound cruel.

  22. Shira
    Shira says:

    I absolutely understand the coat reasoning. I don’t own one single winter coat either, even though it can get chilly here in the winter. I just figure it’s not worth the bother for the few minutes I’ll be outside. Of course, I live in a far warmer clime than yours.

    I love reading your blog. We are experiencing some special needs issues with one of our children, and I find your perspective extremely valuable. You offer the perspective both of an adult with Asperger’s and of a mother raising a child with Asperger’s. Fascinating.

    And your moment with the farmer on the couch – tender, intimate, like a couple married for decades. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This comment makes me really happy. Thanks, Shira. I want to be useful about special needs stuff. And I want to be in love that will last. You make me feel like I’m on the right track.


  23. Siri
    Siri says:

    I love this post because, while it could apply to telecommuting, it also is about knowing yourself and how to find work arounds to make life work for you. I’ve been discovering work arounds for myself lately and although it makes me feel like a child, it also helps me do things that I don’t want to/feel like doing. Thanks for this post.

  24. Tom
    Tom says:

    This relationship is so not going to work. You just barged into his private space but that is typical of folks with Aspergers (and some others too).

    Still, love your honesty. I have a friend with Aspergers. She is tough to be around for a long time but man, can she write up a storm. Her writing is that wonderful inner part of herself that it is tough to get close to in person.

  25. avant garde designer
    avant garde designer says:

    I too work from home. Have been for five years now. I’d love to read more on the subject as it’s one more of us are doing, but also need lots of help. Please pass along ideas.

    My advice: Don’t answer your personal phone during work time. Don’t answer your business phone during non-work time. Voicemail works best for both.

  26. Diego
    Diego says:

    This is a great post. I agree that we should leave our work stuffs in our office and personal stuffs at home. It’s a part of life.

    • Traffic ultimatum
      Traffic ultimatum says:

      Unfortunately sometimes this isn’t possible. Not to say I’m a person who is lacking in self-discipline but there are sticky situations where personal matters arise during work. I do work with a proper system but we have to accomodate for extreme circumstances.

      -Jamie L

  27. Steve Saha
    Steve Saha says:

    I liked the entire post, your day-out with the farmer. Specially, the way you finished your post with a humor (‘Do you want me to lie on top of you?’), I could not resist myself to laugh out loud. There sounds the quality of a good author.

  28. Gordon
    Gordon says:

    Those are great tips, but for me the hardest part is to talk to people on the phone or typing on my computer while having a little child to take care of. He screams and pulls my hand to play with him most of the time.

  29. Joseph Blofeld
    Joseph Blofeld says:

    Put your shoes on? Absolutely!

    Having a routine when you work at home and sticking to it is critical. As is creating a space that is singularly for the purpose of doing your work. Make sure it’s a space you don’t have to share with anybody and that it doesn’t double up as a space for another function (such as a dining table).

    But (and this is a big one), you must must must train everyone who ever enters your work environment to understand and respect that when you are at/in that space, you are at work.

  30. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Thanks for the very good points.

    I have started working at home recently and found that social distractions are the hardest things to ignore when you need to settle down and get some work done!

  31. Costas Vitkon
    Costas Vitkon says:

    Totally agree with Joseph. I would add that you have to try and make it as professional as possible by pre-defining the minimum hours that you re going to spend working. When at house there so many distractions and you can easily get off schedule.

  32. Lee Shawn
    Lee Shawn says:

    Great post. I feel alike about many things, especially about the balance thing. I mean, as much as your next cubic ‘neighbor’ can drive you nuts, being all alone can do the same (faster ;-) ). I am working from home for many years and found that with time you tend to schedule more meetings and over things that you didn’t before, all of that to get out regularly and meet people.
    I also learned that the tech-com (email, skype etc.) is good enough only with people you have healthy working relations with. Many times, this relationship is best achieved (and developed) via face to face meetings. So, if you feel you co-project is stuck, schedule a meeting, it will do wonders…

  33. Steve Lee
    Steve Lee says:

    I think telecommuting is good for pt or lower level positions but you still need to go to the office and have actual contact with people you work with

    it is good and bad. i run a site called http://www.fighting-mma.com and i have telecommute writers and some contract designers but i need to have full time people that are ihgher up to make and evaluate decisions on a daily basis

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