I’ve been working from home for over 10 years now and the question of pyjamas versus getting dressed properly is a pretty standard one amongst the work at home crowd. Academics often work at home at least some of the time. At least, those in the humanities and social sciences whose research does not involve a lab often do. But the pandemic has put everyone at home all the time doing a much wider variety of work.
I do not have any commitment to dressing to someone else’s expectations of “professional”. I don’t believe in wearing uncomfortable clothing. If you understand pyjamas as “comfortable” and “getting dressed properly” as wearing something uncomfortable, then I hope you read what follows as encouragement to find comfortable things to wear out of the house when we are allowed to leave the house again. Some people call this kind of thing “secret pyjamas”.
Clothing as a way to mark a boundary
When you work outside of the home the boundary between work and not-work has a physical dimension. Even when you bring work home, you are aware that you are doing work activities in a non-work space. Academics vary in the firmness of this spatial distinction.
I know people who make it extra firm because they know that if they didn’t, they’d work more than they want to and spend less time with their partner/children/whoever than they would like to. They would rather work on making the office a nice place to work and getting colleagues to respect their need for focused time in the office than do any of their work at home.
I know other people who do some kinds of work at home but not others. Writing seems to be a common choice. By writing at home, this group not only avoid having to negotiate the ability to do focussed work undisturbed in the office, they also make a spatial distinction between different types of academic work. Since writing seems to be the kind of work that most often gets squeezed out of your day/week/month in favour of things more urgent or with more tangible or more immediate outcomes, this makes sense.
Now that you are doing all of your work from home, these boundaries have been erased. Clothing can be a way to reinstitute them. Think of the colloquial use of wearing different hats as a way to designate different roles. Or think of costume changes: The mild mannered Clark Kent is a journalist who dressed very differently from the superhero Superman. Having work clothes and not-work clothes is a tangible way to mark the boundary between work and not-work. You might also have writing clothes and teaching/meeting clothes to mark the boundary between different types of work, especially if you are the kind of person who is able to designate a research day.
Boundaries help you focus
The disruption and uncertainty of the pandemic means a lot of people are having difficulty focusing. This is normal. Setting time boundaries is one useful strategy for helping you focus. If you are familiar with the pomodoro technique, it works this way. By designating a beginning and an end time, it’s easier to stay focused. Similarly, getting dressed for work is a powerful signal to your brain that you should be working. Or, to extend the hat/costume analogy, putting on your work costume or your writing hat becomes a way to enter into focused work time.
Getting dressed for work isn’t just about what you wear, it’s also an activity that can become part of a routine that leads you into particular types of work. A pomodoro session starts with the activity of setting a timer. You probably have practices for starting a teaching session, marking the end of settling into the space and the beginning of the class itself. There are practices for starting a meeting. Or a meal. Or a run.
These routines and practices help you focus. Doing a particular sequence of activities in a particular order leads you into the next step of the sequence.
Boundaries will also help you rest
The most common advice for those suffering from insomnia is to develop a bedtime routine. (see e.g. this NHS advice on how to get to sleep). Not doing other things in your bed (or even your bedroom), going to bed at the same time each night, doing the same routine before you go to bed and between getting into bed and going to sleep… all help you sleep better. Those of you with children may also recognise how a bedtime routine helps your kids relax and go to sleep.
Rest involves much more than sleep. And one important kind of rest is mental rest. Your work is intellectually demanding. It is difficult to turn your brain off. And yet cognitive work is real work, in the sense that it requires energy. You benefit from cognitive rest, even in the form of a shift in cognitive focus. Your brain does important cognitive work while you sleep, making connections, solidifying memories, and so on.
A change of clothing can be part of a routine practice signally the boundary between work and rest. Changing into your pyjamas at night can be a signal to start relaxing so you can sleep later. Changing out of your pyjamas in the morning can be a signal to be more alert for work and other activities.
The cultural symbolism of “work clothes”
We live in a culture in which notions of “professional dress” are well established. These may be observed differently in academic contexts than in, for example, corporate or legal contexts. You may be critical of this kind of thing. You may either wish you didn’t need to dress “professionally” or actively resist doing so. You may also be aware that the ability to not dress “professionally” is not available to everyone.
You may make an extra effort about how you dress for certain professional occasions: a PhD viva, a graduation ceremony, a public lecture, giving expert testimony in a court, or being interviewed by the media. You do this because you acknowledge that, whether you like it or not, how you dress affects how seriously people take what you say, or indicates to others how seriously you take this occasion. You may find that how you dress can mitigate the ways in which other visible characteristics (e.g. age, gender, disability, ethnicity) cause some to take you less seriously.
Now that you are working at home, and people can only see the top half of your outfit in video meetings, you may be thinking this doesn’t matter as much. But your brain can be tricky.
Do you take yourself seriously dressed this way? If you are prone to self doubt (which you may call something like imposter syndrome), does how you dress while you are working make a difference? Have you actually experimented with this to test your hypothesis (whatever your hypothesis is)? If not, how do you know?
Experiment with getting dressed for work
The temptation to wear pyjamas or other super comfortable clothing that you would not wear to the office is strong while you are working from home. If this is working for you and you are able to focus while working and also have time when you can rest, then keep doing what you are doing. However, if you are struggling to focus, struggling to stop working now that you have no physical boundary between home and work, struggling to get other members of your household to recognise that you are working and cannot be interrupted for trivial things, or having difficulty sleeping, I highly recommend that you experiment with getting dressed for work.
It’s an experiment. You need to decide what “dressed for work” means as long as it’s distinct from dressed for rest/fun/not-work. In other words, your work clothes can still be comfortable. If you are struggling with self-doubt, make sure they are the kinds of clothes that you associate with “knows what she’s talking about” in other contexts.
How will you know whether your experiment is working? Identify some concrete indicators of change. Write them down. You will need them later.
Give your experiment enough time to run. The effect of getting dressed for work is not magic. It’s a practice that becomes a routine that helps lead you to a particular state of mind. What else goes with it? Where does getting dressed fit in your morning routine? Allow yourself some time to establish this new habit and then let it work for a while before evaluating it. Decide when you will review your experiment.
The point of an experiment is to learn something. You can observe things as you go along but don’t make any judgements until a certain amount of time has passed. You can’t analyse one data point. When you review your experiment decide whether you want to continue, make some tweaks and review again in a couple of weeks, or go back to what you did before.
What should you wear to work? by Naomi Dunford
Audio version added 9 April 2020.