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By Jill Hamburg Coplan
MARCH 22, 2000

Battling Isolation When Working at Home

Make your space as appealing as possible, and create reasons to communicate with others


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In the New Economy, everyone supposedly works with fascinating colleagues in light, airy spaces (liberally furnished with cappuccino makers, of course) that stimulate spontaneous brainstorming. I don't know anyone who actually has an office like that (do you?). If you work alone in a converted basement or closet, the walls may start closing in. That's what this professional singer -- who performs, teaches, produces concerts, and works for nonprofit arts groups from home -- discovered. Here's an edited letter and some suggestions for coping:


How do I continue to be inspired on those days when I have little or no contact with the outside world? Sometimes I become almost paralyzed by the lack of contact and stimulation. I force myself to take walks, but often I'm so busy I can't even do that.
-- J.P., New York, N.Y.


Combatting isolation when you work alone requires a two-pronged approach: A space that keeps your spirits aloft and resisting the tendency to withdraw more.

Renting an office elsewhere is the most obvious solution, says psychologist Allen Elkin, the director of the Stress Management & Counseling Center in New York City and the author of Urban Ease: Stress-Free Living in the Big City. If you're the type of person who hates feeling isolated or needs a lot of stimulation, you probably won't come out ahead with a home office, though it's convenient and inexpensive. If moving is impossible, at least create a separate workstation, even if it's just a chair in a different part of the house. "There's something distressing and depressing about being closeted in one room," Elkins says.

If you gotta be there, make it a haven. That's a must. "Concentrate on the surroundings, your possessions, the paintings, the sofa," says Linda Talley, a Houston executive coach, motivational speaker, and the author of Business Finesse: Dealing with Sticky Situations in the Workplace for Managers. "Are they what you really want? Do they make you smile? Is the lighting right? Is the reading chair comfortable? Start by changing that." Buy something you love that will fit in. This need not be a huge expenditure, just something you'll enjoy.

Now for the room's occupant. Being alone so much is tough for most people. And without the distractions of an office, many people find they work doubly hard. To compensate, treat yourself well, Talley recommends. Buy a bouquet of flowers every week, for example. That's not easy for spartan, hardworking types. They're likely to frown upon such selfish indulgences. Lose that attitude, Talley advises: "To get what you want in your work life, you've got to take care of yourself."

Next, avoid technology that constrains social contact, such as faxes. Instead, use the telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, or online chat. And start -- purposefully and actively -- making arrangements that get you out of the house, for work or personal reasons. Make a list of things that will be satisfying and stimulating, and then do them. "Plan to take trips, to get together with colleagues or friends," says Elkins. "Head over to a gym, and interact with people there and kill two birds with one stone."

There's nightlife, too, though it may hard to get out at night, especially if your other half works elsewhere and wants to relax at home. But, if you've been in all day, hone your persuasive skills, and get your mate to go out in the evening. Just explain sweetly that your sanity is at stake.

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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