My hairy co-workers taught me a thing or two about working and surviving in a pandemic
When I adopted my first dog at the tail-end (disclaimer: all puns are fully intended in this article) of 2019, I knew she would change my life but I didn’t know she would essentially save it! Within a couple of months of taking home my new fur-ever friend, the world changed in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and going outside without a valid reason became a criminal offense. In Spain, where I live, walking your dog became one of the few exceptions that permitted you to leave home, and what was a chore for many swiftly became a luxury. Where dragging myself out of bed early in the morning had once been almost painful, it was now a precious and sought-after privilege. And then there was the godsend of having 24/7 company, a playmate, and something else to do besides doomscrolling and compulsively cleaning.
A few months in, and we had both become so accustomed to my permanent working-from-home situation that it seemed like the perfect time to welcome another tiny but chaotic bundle of energy to complete our lockdown bubble. And that is how within 6 months I went from being petless to the proud mother of two of the naughtiest, but most motivating creatures on the planet. Yes, really – becoming a dog owner has made me a more productive person! I discovered more than just the obvious benefits like waking up earlier, feeling fitter, and the therapeutic potential of pandemic pets. Here are 10 of the more surprising things I learned about myself and the way I work thanks to Yuki and Bambi:
1. Go outside regularly (except when it’s raining)
I’m not proud to admit it, but in the past, I’ve been guilty of not leaving home for several days on end (and I’m talking pre-pandemic). As the sufferer of a chronic illness, fatigue would build up during the week and I’d justify my lazy weekends. Now my weekends are dedicated to exploring nature spots and discovering new hiking trails and come Monday, I’ll often feel more rested than after a weekend spent at home.
I also tended to work in long stretches of time, regularly skipping lunch break as I felt it broke up my creative flow. These days I’m obliged to take at least 3 walks a day, which leaves me feeling energized and frees up mental space for new ideas. I still don’t take a long lunch break, but I make sure to enjoy a brisk 20-minute walk which leaves me feeling reinvigorated and ready to tackle the afternoon’s task list.
2. Choose compassion
My dogs have bitten me, escaped, soiled inside my home, and frequently break wind. If this was a romantic relationship, it would already be history. But a dog is for life – and there’s always a rational explanation for most bad behaviors. In the same way, I’m learning to extend that rational thinking towards myself. If I’m not performing at my peak, then there’s got to be a reason for that. Would I scold my dogs the same way I do myself? Never! Plus, research actually shows that self-compassion boosts performance by triggering the “growth mindset”—the belief that improvement is achievable through dedication and hard work.
3. Routine doesn’t bite
I’ve never been one for routine (instigating a morning routine and taking up running took just about all of my self-discipline), but I’ve been taught its value by these tiny tyrants of habit that now rule my daily timetable. I used to think that going to the same coffee shop every day was for bores – but my dogs have taught me that when you find something you like, there’s no need to look elsewhere. The illusion of choice keeps our minds busy thinking about the could-haves. But my pets know exactly what they will eat, and when, so safe in the knowledge that dinner is served at 8pm, they can spend their evenings doing things that actually make them happy (like sleeping and drooling).
I no longer consider a social life a luxury item, but an essential. Hearing other people’s perspectives, problems, and ideas is vital to my doing my best work.
4. Socialize – even when you don’t feel like it
When I first adopted my dog, she didn’t know how to interact with other dogs – at the first sign of a butt-sniff she would sit down, tail firmly tucked beneath her. Fast forward 12 months and she’s one of the most playful pups in the dog park! I’m certainly not a social butterfly and I’d often turn down week-night invitations to finish a project, or just because I felt tired. However, science has proven our creative minds work better the more sources of input we have. I no longer consider a social life a luxury item, but an essential. Hearing other people’s perspectives, problems, and ideas is vital to my doing my best work, so I switched evenings out to morning coffee dates that I know I’m more likely to keep – and you’ll now find me at the dog park every evening, too!
5. Work in short bursts and be sure to rest
Most dogs appear to have two modes: on or sleep. As a working breed, Yuki appears never to tire of running after a ball and bringing it back, but as soon as we step in the door she will go straight to bed for several hours to recharge. Bambi, being a chihuahua-mix, expends a huge amount of energy on being incredibly territorial and zooming around like a lunatic, but these periods of mania are always tempered with regular naps. My work style, like most of us in the Western world, has been shaped by the antiquated-yet-enduring notion of the 8-hour workday, where I felt as long as I was at my desk, then I was doing my job. It’s not unknown for me to fall into hours-long hyper-focused work sessions, but with two energetic canine roommates, those are now a thing of the past. And I really do notice how much more energetic and enthusiastic I feel about a task after taking some time away from it!
6. Save time in the long run by mono-tasking
Much as some pups would like to, it’s pretty impossible for them to eat, sleep and play all at once. It’s common knowledge among dog owners that training sessions should be attempted after your pet has had their daily playtime, so they can focus on the important task of walking to heel. And while combining playtime and dinner time can be fun, I’ve learned that keeping meal times calm is much more conducive to a clean apartment. The same goes for work tasks… while it may be possible to fix up that spreadsheet and conference call at the same time, it’s probably going to result in a big mess that you’ll have to clean up later.
Keep exploring, be open to all possibilities, and never stop being surprised!
7. Let it go
The noise. You know the one – when you accidentally step on their tail. Few things on earth cut as deeply as that tortured squeal and look of hurt… but after an apology and a treat your best bud is back by your side and ready to take on the world again! It made me think: how can I be my best self today if I’m still thinking about what annoyed me yesterday? If something really angers you, speak up by all means – but don’t sweat the small stuff… everybody makes mistakes. Dogs remember people, places, and experiences based on associations they have with them, but their short-term memory is actually less than 2 minutes. So the lesson I’ve taken from them is this:
If you won’t remember it in 2 years, don’t let it bother you for more than 2 minutes.
8. Live more in the moment
The Global Meditation Market is huge right now, which is great if it means more people are making time to care for their mental and physical wellbeing. But if you’ve ever owned a reactive dog then you’ll probably know that you need no help in staying present in the moment. My dog is terrified of skateboards and will lunge suddenly at the mere sound of one, so I’ve always got to be prepared. That means I have to pay extra attention to the sights and sounds around me (which to be honest, I should have been doing in a busy city anyway!). I no longer lose myself in music or podcasts or worrying, and I am 100% aware of my surroundings at all times. This, apparently, is good news for my productivity as studies show numerous benefits of being more mindful, such as increased focus, decreased stress, and a clearer mind capable of making better decisions.
9. Screens are dumb
The internet may be ruled by cats, but dogs are a close second – they even have an entire subculture devoted to bad grammar and misspellings. Do they care? Absolutely not – mine stare at me in bewilderment every time I pick up the phone. They hate my constant attempts to get cute pet selfies, scrolling is not tolerated for longer than 5 minutes (a wet nose will helpfully let me know when that time limit has been reached), and they quickly recognized that the end of a Zoom call = walkies. In fact, when it comes to getting a hold of your digital habits, it seems like getting a dog might be the next best thing after installing Freedom. And it turns out I’m not alone in this thinking! Richard Halpern, a professional parenting coach, suggests that parents get their screen-addicted offspring a pet:
“What if you were looking at your dog and your dog was on a phone? That wouldn’t be as fun, would it?”Richard Halpern in The New York Times, July 2019
10. Stay curious
No person, object or creature enters my home without being thoroughly investigated, and rightly so – you never know when something could be a potential threat, a delicious treat, or a brilliant idea. Other proponents of curiosity besides my dogs include Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who both defined curiosity as their most important quality. However, in day-to-day life it’s easy to find your curiosity stifled – whether by distraction, fear of risk and inefficiency, or general lack of time. But curiosity is a magical elixir that leads to higher-performing, more-adaptable, and happier employees and organizations, so I feel incredibly lucky for the constant reminder to keep exploring, be open to all possibilities, and never stop being surprised!