Let artists teach you how to work from home (because they've been doing it forever)

#WFH? You're one of the lucky ones. But you'll still need these tips from Toronto freelance illustrators.

#WFH? You're one of the lucky ones. But you'll still need these tips from Toronto illustrators

Maybe "social distancing" is just another word for hygge. Lisa Vanin's cozy home studio in Toronto. (Lisa Vanin)

Lisa Vanin doesn't want to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19 or anything, but for the foreseeable future, she says her days aren't going to change much. Since 2009, she's painted from home, producing illustrations for clients including Elle magazine and Flare. I mean, if you've always worked alone like that, can you still call it "social distancing"?

That's got to be a running joke for artists like her, and anyone else who's been working remotely for years. In the last few days, the luckiest workers have been able to pack up their laptops and scavenged bottles of staff lounge Purell with orders to put in their hours from home. And if that's you, that lifestyle switch could require an attitude adjustment. 

Smug life. (Facebook)

On that point, Vanin has plenty of advice, as does another Toronto-based artist, LeeAndra Cianci — who started Instagramming #WFH tips for her friends earlier this week, actually. She remembers what the switch can be like. (Four years ago, Cianci left a steady office job to pursue a freelance illustration career full-time.) The shift, she says, "definitely took a while to get used to" — but she loves it now. "I can't even imagine going back to the office!"

Just think: you won't just survive this pandemic, you'll thrive as a result. But first, you'll need to stay focused and positive — while keeping connected to the outside world. Here's how these artists make it work for them.

Mornings are for me-time

What do you normally do on your commute? Do you read a book, listen to podcasts, take your sweet, sweet time nursing an almond milk latte? Maybe you bike or walk — because you won't get 15 minutes of fresh air otherwise. "It's very easy when you work from home to be like, 'OK! I'm awake! It's 7:30 a.m. and I can start working right now!'" says Cianci. "But I think it's important to do something, whether it's walking your dog or going outside to have a coffee — something that's almost like commuting." (Commuting minus the stress of train delays and over-stuffed subway platforms and ever-present filth, of course.) Think of it as block of time that's completely separate from the work day — a moment to mentally reset. 

Dress for the day

Save the pyjamas for nap time. Your mom will be proud, and you'll probably get more done. One tip from Cianci: dress for what you plan to accomplish. In her case, squeezing in a morning workout is one of her daily goals, so she puts on her exercise gear after breakfast. "If I'm already wearing the clothes, then yes, I'm probably going to do it."

Make yourself a dedicated workspace, and make it nice

"You want to feel like you're going somewhere and you're going to work," says Vanin, who recommends clearing a spot that feels as self-contained as possible — a tip that Cianci echoes.

"I think you want it to be inviting, like somewhere you want to be sitting all day. But to me, it was important that it felt separate from the rest of our house even though we're in a condo. It's not massive, but it has a feeling of separation. So when I leave my desk at the end of the day, it's not calling me to come back. When you work on your couch, let's say, you could just keep working all day — you won't know when to call it."

What does a nice workspace look like? Exhibit A: LeeAndra Cianci's desk. That's the illustrator, at home in Toronto. (Christie Vuong)

Finding the right space might take some creativity and IRL Tetris skills, but wherever you set up, equip that spot with everything you need. Those needs can include more than the obvious practical things, says Vanin. What could make your workspace more comfortable — the kind of place that's almost as cozy as the puffy sofa just 10 steps away? Vanin surrounds herself with things that inspire her and make her happy. "The things that inspire my art are nature and plants and animals," she says, so she keeps little foraged, outdoorsy mementos around her desk. "For me, working from home is lovely because I have all my favourite things around me all the time."

Just keep it tidy, OK?

To minimize distractions, minimize mess. Says Vanin: "I always make sure that [my workspace] is clean and organized and that nothing from the rest of the house makes its way in there."

"I keep my space very tidy so that at any point, if I'm feeling inspired or creative, I can just go, 'OK, to the studio!' I can start working and there's not not gonna be, like, all of the laundry in the way or something."

Always punch in at the same time

"Honestly, something I love about working from home is that every day is different," says Cianci — but structure is still crucial. To keep focused, she maintains set hours, working the same schedule as her husband, who has an office job. (Now that he's working from, they have to come up with a new system, she says.)

Vanin is more flexible about her hours, but she commits to starting at the same time each day. "There are days where I've got work to do and I'm not super into it, but by the time I get myself a cup of tea and I sit down at my desk — and I've got my sketch and I've got my ideas — I can get back to work."

To-do: decide if you're a list person

If you think you could use some extra motivation, Cianci's favourite technique is a classic one: make to-do lists. "I'm a bit crazy. I literally put everything on a list," she laughs — finish assignment, pet dog, do laundry, make more lists. She usually builds her itineraries a day in advance, filling in extra tasks as needed. "For me, I find it super helpful for focus," she says. "And I find it very satisfying to cross things off the list."

Schedule your scrolling time

Even if you're not working from home, social media is a distraction. And if you're a habitual user, Cianci recommends saving those check-ins for breaks. Or, if social media is important to your professional life — as it is to hers (she finds a lot of clients through Instagram) — build a publishing schedule a week in advance, and do your best to stick to it. Otherwise, she says, you might find yourself "accidentally scrolling" when you could be using those lost hours on something else.

One perk of working from home: you can garden on your break! This is Lisa Vanin's extremely green back patio. (Lisa Vanin)

Say no to streaming

Vanin and Cianci agree: there is one habit you absolutely do not want to form, and that's watching TV. Even if you swear you're not actually following Love is Blind, streaming can be way too much of a distraction. So if you crave a bit of background noise, try working to music instead.

"In university, I had a really great teacher," says Vanin. "The best advice I ever got was when he said, 'Don't spend a lot of time watching TV. If you're going to sit down and watch a movie, it's an event.'" (Thank goodness for Netflix Party?) "That advice kind of stuck with me," she continues. "People are always like, 'How do you get so much done in so little time?' There's a lot of time available in the day — you just have to make it count." 

Get outside while you can

For the time being, flattening the curve doesn't stop you from taking a walk. When you finish a task, go on break — and consider using that free time away from your new home office. Vanin's a big advocate. "I do gardening and things," she says. "I'll do bird watching when the migrations come through. I'll sit in the backyard."

Schedule meetings (not necessarily with co-workers)

Zoom, FaceTime, Instagram — however you stay in touch with people, you do virtual-you. Keeping up a social life will help get you through the work day, Cianci finds. As a freelancer, she doesn't really have colleagues, but she schedules regular meet-ups with friends who also work from home. "It's kind of an inside joke, but we call them our monthly power meetings," she says, laughing. "For example, today I had a video chat with my one friend who is an art director, and another friend who is a writer, and we talked about, 'OK, what are our goals for the week? What are we going to work on?' It's good to have someone keeping you accountable."

Says Vanin: "Don't underestimate how important those kind of connections are. Try to make those creative connections with people."

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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