Together All the Time: How to Make it Work

What co-founding a startup with my main squeeze has taught me about living and working in the era of COVID-19.

A long while ago, my then partner, now husband, Dr. David Rabin (MD, PhD) and I worked more traditional jobs. Dave, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, saw his patients at the hospital and conducted his research in the lab. He would wake up early in the morning to catch up on the latest scientific literature and be out the door until very late. He took “call,” which means that you’re seeing patients in the hospital over the weekend, late at night, and sometimes for 24 hours straight. Meanwhile, I worked long hours in the office in emerging tech.

At this time in our lives, our time together was short and very precious.

Fast forward six years – I joined Dave’s lab as a consultant, on top of my full-time gig, to offer my expertise in emerging tech and finance to fund the early research & development of Apollo at the University of Pittsburgh. I raised money; he ran clinical trials. We got results – and they were amazing. I quit my job and founded Apollo Neuroscience. We got married, I hired Dave, we brought on our team, and finally launched Apollo out to the world.

Life is nothing like it was before. Dave and I went from working all the time apart to working all the time together. We went from getting a paycheck from an employer to being employers. We live together, work together, travel for work together; sometimes we even give presentations on stage together. We’re always together, and, since we started a startup, we also manage a decent amount of uncertainty. Startups, and entrepreneurship in general (small business owners – I see you), carries with it a need for a certain level of comfort with change and uncertainty.

What’s all this mean? Well, in the era of COVID-19 Dave and I have been in our house “sheltering in place” by state mandate for three weeks as of this writing. I expect it will continue at least until May, maybe longer. Our togetherness is even more than usual, since, well, we can’t leave.

No doubt, staying inside during COVID-19 has caused chaos for a lot of people. Many of us, who are lucky enough to have our jobs, are coming up the learning curve on working from home, managing remote, distributed teams, all in the midst of being mandated to stay inside in close quarters with those we live with, whether that’s our kids, our spouses, partners, parents, or roommates.

That’s a lot to deal with. So, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about working remotely, often from home, in very close quarters (oh how I remember our first couple tiny apartments together), in times of uncertainty.

Make your own oasis

Headphones drown out background noise and signal that you’re working to those around you

First off, stress shortens your fuse, making you a lot less nice than usual. I’m a very laser-focused person and being interrupted in the middle of doing something is a big pet peeve of mine. Unfortunately, when you’re in tight quarters, this is pretty much inevitable. My first tip for creating a bit of an oasis for yourself to focus is to use the same strategies open office workers use to stay focused in the milieu of open desks –  headphones. They are your friend, and noise cancelling headphones may just be your best friend. If you’re not into listening to music when you work because you find it distracting, just putting them on (with noise cancelling preferably) helps drown out background noise and also reminds those around you that you’re focused on solo work. I prefer my old school wired Bose headphones (the Bluetooth wireless ones give me a headache).

Bring the outside, inside

Being stuck inside for long periods of time makes almost everyone (excluding vampires) a little sad. I’m from the east coast, specifically, I grew up in Upstate NY (three hours from the Canadian border) – it is COLD there. So,  I’m very familiar with the concept of staying inside for months on end when it’s 20 degrees and snowing.

Bringing plants inside and setting up warm lighting really helped make the confines of home feel safe and cozy instead of cramped and isolating.

Keep a schedule and share it

Calendars are your friend. Normally we share calendars at work so people know if you’re in a meeting, to block off time to work (my secret, shh), and to denote when we’re out of the office. I can tell you, sharing your calendar (work and life) with those that you are sheltering in place with, whether that’s your partner, spouse, or roommates – helps communicate when you need quiet time. This communication really helps establish respect around time and priorities. If you live with those that aren’t privy to digital calendars, put your schedule somewhere people will see it (a whiteboard in the kitchen, a note on the fridge, etc.). If you have kids and they are a bit older, just knowing when you’re going to be busy helps them manage their time and expectations too.

Set your top goals for the day and share them

Dave and I set our top three goals for the day, and we tell each other what they are. In addition to sharing our calendars, sharing our goals each morning heightens our awareness of each other’s priorities for the day. The power of this practice cannot be understated.

This practice, along with scheduling out your work for the day and sharing that schedule with those around you helps you clearly identify your goals and priorities and makes you accountable for getting them done – which can be important when you’re first learning to focus when working from home.

Take care of yourself

Back to the top, stress can make you a big ‘ole jerk and being trapped inside with a jerk is no fun for anyone (not even the jerk). Managing stress in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty is crucial to staying sane right now. With that, prioritizing your mental and physical wellbeing is crucial.

  1. Exercise every day. Even if you’re not an athlete, moving for 30 mins a day will lower your stress levels, improve your focus, boost your mood and help you sleep. 
  2. Eat right. Stress makes you want to eat junk food high in sugar, salt, fat and in many cases, a bunch of preservatives and additives inherent in processed food. Eating poorly increases inflammation, it makes you feel sluggish and lowers mood, and it messes up your sleep. Plus, inflammation reduces your ability to resist illness so – focusing on eating well is super important for keeping your stress down.
  3. Limit the booze. People often say, “I need a drink.” I’m no purist. I have a cocktail or a glass of wine here and there, but the lines outside the liquor store should give you pause. First, alcohol is known to knock down your immune system, not the best plan in the midst of a pandemic. Also, drinking increases inflammation, and you guessed it, disrupts sleep which is critical for resilience, immunity, and also not being a jerk.
  4. Be social, while social distancing. Humans need people. So, make time to call or video chat with loved ones. Check in with those around you. I’ve noticed that this crisis really highlights what’s important, our family, friends, and the community we count on.
  5. If you’ve got an Apollo, use it. Since I started working with the Apollo technology I’ve found that my use of it has changed. In the beginning, I primarily used Apollo’s Clear and Focused mode when working on creative tasks, during presentations, and when I needed to focus on work that I frankly don’t like to do. I noticed a big improvement in my focus and a heightened sense of calm and clarity when working. While I still use Apollo for focus I began to use it more frequently, on my ankle, for sleep about a year ago when I started traveling a lot for work. It helped me fall asleep on planes and adjust to new time zones without drinking caffeine or using typical sleep aids. Eventually using Apollo’s sleep mode became part of my nightly routine, even when I wasn’t traveling. It helps me unwind after a lot of work (and staring at a screen) and helps me go back to sleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. Using Apollo really catalyzed a change in my health – one where I prioritized recovery as much as I did productivity, and what I realized is that I worked smarter, was more efficient, and that I was happier. I’m forever grateful to Dave for working with me to develop it. 

There’s always more to say but I’ll leave it here. Please feel free to send us questions and comments. Dave and I are always happy to share what we can with our community and we learn so much from you all.

With love,
Stay safe. Stay strong.
-Kathryn

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