Living alone, gigs and working from home: lessons for lock down

In the early 1990’s, after living in Johannesburg for eight years, I moved to Queenstown, a small farming town the Eastern Cape.  It’s probably best known for its schools (my ex-husband-to-be was a teacher), and sheep.  Mostly for wool.  I had no job and although I’d trained to teach, hadn’t.  I didn’t want to.  The upshot was that I had to make work for myself.  At the time, I had a couple of voluntary projects that could move with me,  for which I was getting paid.  They’d be known as side hustles today.  They formed a launch pad for others.


Although the move was one I wanted, I had not anticipated the sense of isolation:  from colleagues, friends and familiar places and spaces.  I had to make a conscious effort to maintain relationships and build new ones.  It was not easy.  At the same time, I baked lemon biscuits.  To sell at a little family-owned cafe in the next village.  They were first to bear the Fiona’s Favourites label.

I digress.

My point –

I had to find a way to earn a living.  The ex-husband-to-be, at that stage, wasn’t even the husband-to-be.

Networks and offices

Just before this life decision happened, I had bought myself a little ICL Elf personal computer and a printer.


It helped with the volunteer work I did and when I occasionally worked at home.  Armed with those and a telephone line, the only other essential was a fax machine – with an answer service.  Home office sorted.  In its own room.

Equipping an office is one thing:   one cannot work when there’s nothing to work on, and nobody with whom to work.  The internet was still science fiction, so communication was in person, by telephone, snail mail and fax.  The social media and mobile phones were beyond imagining.

Fortunately, I had a prodigious network that was a function of both professional and voluntary activities. I had no choice or compunction in using it.  The telephone and professional standing (also recognised in hindsight) were my only allies.

Stick to standard business hours

Once I settled, and folk knew I worked from home, that presented other challenges.  New friends just dropped in for tea or a chat.  They’d be miffed if one answered the phone and interrupted their visit with a work conversation.  They didn’t get it when invitations for fun times were turned down – during work hours.  Working from home is still a job.

Folk began to say that I was very disciplined.  The truth is, that I was not:  I had work to do, and it paid the bills.  I prefer to do it during business hours – when most people also work.  I like having downtime when my friends and family have down time.  Logical, isn’t it?  One doesn’t readily drop into visit a friend at work – during office hours, does one?

So, I established a discipline which has, by and large, defined my working day since 1993:  into the office at around 08h30 or earlier.  Break for lunch – often short, and then back to work.

Understanding one’s body clock

As a child, I always hankered after my own space.  Except for a short spell, when I was about seven (and as punishment), I shared a room.  A room to myself was not punishment.  The real punishment?  Well, that’s a story for another day.  Five years later, I went off to boarding school. This meant sharing a room with three other girls: complete strangers.  I was the only girl from Grahamstown – in the boarding house and in the school.  I adjusted and learned to live quietly in my allotted space.  In my head. Fortunately, seniors were allocated double or single rooms.  A single room was always my aspiration and my eutopia.

Front row, first left: Fiona at 13

Similarly, my not objecting to my mother’s insistence in my going into residence for university, even though we lived in the same town, had less to do with studies the social life than it did with control over my own being space.

There’s a pattern here:  surrounded by people, yet yearning for my own space and devising strategies to make it so.  It’s a pattern I only recognised years later.

When I started work, I left Grahamstown and moved to Johannesburg.  After a very short stint in a house share, I moved into my own apartment.  My criteria included not living (cooking, entertaining) and sleeping in the same room. If I could avoid it.  I have very fond memories of that first apartment, even though it was more than a little down at heel.  After six months I moved into a house share again. It was also short lived and after about nine months, I went in search of an apartment with similar criteria. Again, I have very happy memories of that apartment and those times in the glory days of my youth.

I lived alone until I was nearly thirty and moved to Queenstown.

However, there’s a big difference between choosing to be alone and, for want of a better way of putting it, ending up alone.  The latter, for most people, is the consequence of the end of a significant relationship, and it presents a new set of challenges.

Living alone, working from home

After settling in Queenstown, the ex-husband-to-be and I (reluctantly) moved to Cape Town.  The “ex” bit came to pass and I was living alone again.  It was not a prospect that filled me with horror.  On the contrary, I relished the idea.  I was, however,  very conscious of the potential pitfalls of working from home, for myself, and living in the same space.  Again, I made some conscious decisions that have stood me in good stead:

Get up, get dressed and go to work.

In other words, have a routine and a space that is dedicated to work work, i.e. the drudge for which you are paid. The Husband, when we first got together, was fascinated that I would not just get dressed, I’d do the work gear and war paint thing.  Even if I didn’t have a meeting.  It was part of taking myself seriously.

Get out at least once a day.  Even if it’s just a walk around the block or to the corner shop.
Don’t eat breakfast or supper at your desk.
Stop work at a reasonable time – overtime happens – but don’t make it a habit.
If something’s not finished, that’s not just ok, it’s good.

Unless, of course, there’s a looming deadline.   I’ve learned that if I go back to that unfinished work outside my peak time (you’ll read about this below), the synapses do their thing because there is a foundation on which to build.  A good night’s sleep gives perspective and a fresh eye.

In that framework, develop a system that works with your brain’s best times to work.

Change the routine for weekends and time out. This is contrary to what sleep experts say, but over the weekends, I wouldn’t set the alarm clock.  I’d wake up when I woke up.  Sometimes I’d have breakfast in bed. Sometimes I’d take myself out. I’d mooch about, read, get a video (yes, it was that long ago) entertain and, generally have a weekend.

Have a social life fun and treat yourself

Last but not least:  enjoy life and the odd treat. Why deprive yourself just because you’re on your own?  Why not have good coffee, or a glass of nice wine with your dinner?   That was one of my resolutions:  in my first single life, I didn’t have alcohol in the house unless I was entertaining.  In my second single life, I consciously decided that I would enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner.

Understanding one’s peak learning times

At boarding school, our compulsory study time was from around 4 pm until about 8.30 pm with a break for supper.  For some reason, that time would just whizz past.  Homework and study were a breeze.  I didn’t think much of it at the time.  At university, when everyone else was studying during the morning, it was all I could do to stay awake.  I resented my concentration being broken for supper – our main meal.  In those days, we had set meal times, at long tables.  If you were not there, you didn’t eat.  There was no keeping meals for students, nor was there a possibility of dining earlier or later, let alone collecting supper and eating it in one’s room.  I studied best when most of my peers were watching TV or down at the pub.  Good thing I was mostly socially rather shy and awkward.

It was only when I was an online writing tutor, twenty odd years later, that I became aware of the notion of peak learning times.  Analysing one’s study habits was a standard topic of the Writing 101 papers that I reviewed.  Then I discovered Howard Gardener’s 1992 Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  Suddenly,  things fell into place and structuring my working day significantly impacted on my creativity and productivity.  It’s why you still find me in the office “in the zone” between 4 and 7 pm.  It’s 5.22 pm as I write this sentence.

Lessons for Lock Down

Today is day nine of our lock down in South Africa.  As things stand, we should be able to get out and about on April 17.  However, that’s not cast in stone.  Although the curve is still rising, it’s not as steep, but as we enter week two, that’s likely to change.  And there are other challenges and it’s not impossible that the lock down will continue after April 17.

My takeaways from having lived alone and worked from home for nearly thirty years:

  • Consciously take control and make decisions – even in the limited constraints of enforced confinement.
  • Create structure which gives you purpose (however banal) and a routine:
      • Do get dressed – even if it’s just into schloomf  clothes.  Do make your bed.
      • Plan to do at least one thing every day.  Do it.  If you’re not working, that could be anything from cleaning out a cupboard to doing the ironing or starting a free online course.
  • If you’re allowed to leave your property to go for a walk, do.   We aren’t.
  • Cook and eat a proper meal once a day.  Even if it’s just for you.  Make meals you enjoy and if you’re worried about waste, make enough for a second helping. Freeze it or have it for lunch.  I used to have cook-ups and portion meals to re-heat or to reconstitute into “leftover dishes”.  As I still do.
  • Talk (not text) to at least one human being every day – either on the phone or video chat.  Hear a voice, see another person.  Get that virtual hug you need.

Bringing things into the 21st century

That the Internet and the social media have shrunk the world is no more evident than in this time.  It also makes us aware of how important physical touch is, and how often we do.  A handshake; a pat on the arm; a nudge and a wink. We took them all for granted.

I have a love hate relationship with the social media.  I’ve often acknowledged that our move to McGregor defined my relationship with Facebook.  I was able to share our journey with those dear and not near.  I won’t befriend anyone with whom I haven’t formed a profound connection outside that forum and with whom I’d happily share a glass of wine.

All of that said, in this time of lock down, the social media make a big difference to folk isolated and on their own.  Just today, I heard of an eighty year old who’s just discovered Facebook and connecting with friends and relatives all over the world.  WhatsApp has connected me with my son’s mother.  We’ve been friends for more than thirty years and our brief interactions only miss the tea and lemon biscuits we shared when we both lived in the same apartment block all those years ago.

I’m in awe of what folk are doing and I am delightedly embracing some of these – for fun, and for my own mental health:

  • A dear friend in the village, who’s in lock down on her own, started a WhatsApp group of Independently Locked down people.  In the group are those of us who’d connect – and hug – at least once a week.  Her daily, or twice (sometimes thrice), lock down jam, the serious and not-so-serious group chats with the attendant repartee, keep us in touch.  Out of sight is definitely not out of mind.  We also share evening toasts and a virtual breaking of bread.
  • A foodie friend and chef – also in the village – has started what’s for dinner on Facebook.  It’s a small group of mostly foodies and village friends, and friends of friends and has a world wide reach.  There’s ribaldry and recipes all in one group.  And real learning.  I’m trying my hand at making a sour dough mother….
  • Also on Facebook, and further reaching, is What do you see from your window? #StayAtHome which is forcing us to look out: potentially with a different lens.  Some people’s circumstances are gut-wrenching and, the messages of support heartfelt.  I guess, right now, it’s all we are able to do.

The first two often make me laugh, the second is teaching me things too, and the third reminds me that the majority of humanity is confined to quarters.  All are helping me to retain some semblance of sanity and a little more “outside” The Sandbag House.

Every day feels like Sunday

From inside The Sandbag House, every day has the feel of a Sunday.  There’s no real reason to get up.  The village streets are mostly deserted;  there are few passersby, and only sporadic agricultural traffic.

McGregor’s main road on day 2 of our lock down. It’s never this deserted. Even mid-week when the village is at its quietest.

The village is full of the sound of birds and frogs that click and croak.  As it was when we first started visiting the village nearly 15 years ago.  It’s wonderful.  It’s awful.

We, too, need to keep some semblance of routine.  I have to come to the office:  check mail, go online and do what I normally do – or try.  Obviously, there’s no Saturday market so I’m preparing one person, one dish meals for folk who can’t cook and who are assessed as at risk and in need.  I’m grateful to make even a small contribution as well as for the little bit of money it will earn.

Provencal Chicken on the ready

It’s hard to establish a rhythm and routine when you are locked in, and the only creature nagging you to get up is the cat.  Even when there are two of you, and you’re used to being at home and working from home.

That one is not permitted to leave the house does things to one’s head.

Acknowledge it. Then make it a project or series of projects.  I have a mental list.  I hope I have time to finish them all.

Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa

Photo: Selma

Post script

  • I’m participating in blogpal @tracyork’s April challenge of sharing a post every day during April – on the Hive blockchain.  I succeeded last year – on Steemit from which the new blockchain “hived off”…I’m already behind, and hope to catch up….
  • Seems a good way to constructively use the time during a compulsory lock down, right?  For more about this initiative, please check out Traci’s post.

  • If you’d also like to both join the challenge and post from the WordPress platform to the Hive blockchain, sign up here.