Jannie Mouton. picture: HETTY ZANTMAN
Jannie Mouton. picture: HETTY ZANTMAN

As you enter Day 8 of the national lockdown, the one thing that you might have learnt is that you need a routine.

A week ago, your regular schedule may have looked like this: wake up early, hit the road for a run or cycle or an hour at the gym (all now verboten), home, shower, breakfast, school run, commute, followed by a full day of frenetic office activity before heading home via the shops to pick up something decent for dinner, homework, supper, stories, falling asleep in front of the TV and eventually dragging yourself to bed.

Now things are different. And it requires considerably more self-discipline than you ever imagined.

Working from home, as those of us who do it regularly know, is not simply a coffee-fuelled slothful diet of sugary breakfast cereal in your pyjamas while surfing social media interspersed with reruns of Game of Thrones. It’s actually quite hard to get right.

Here Jannie Mouton’s 2011 biography, And then they fired me, comes in handy.

Like you, he had a sudden stop to his routine. He went into the office one Thursday morning in 1995 only to be fired by his partners in SMK, the stockbroking firm they had co-founded.

He was 48 and had teams of people to do his bidding while he called the shots. Not in his wildest dreams did he imagine that he would find himself at home contemplating an uncertain future. What that sudden stop led to, however, was the creation of what is today a R50bn empire spanning banking, financial services, education, agri-business and, more recently, retirement villages. Mouton, as many people know, created PSG – which proved to be the nursery for so many of SA’s top businesses, from banking giant Capitec to schools company Curro.

Chances are your sudden stop is not as radical as Mouton’s. Hopefully you still have a job, and the prospect of returning to that job in the not-too-distant future.

Here are his lessons for working from home (with some modifications by me for the digital age) to help you navigate the period ahead.

Set up an office: You need a dedicated place to work where you can be secluded from outside distractions. Odds are your kids are at home for holidays or doing distance learning if you are lucky enough to have them enrolled at a school offering the service, and you need to be able to have your Zoom or Skype meetings with the minimum risk of interruption. The office keeps you out of the dining room or the kitchen and the multitude of distractions and temptations on offer at close quarters.

Cut yourself some slack: Don’t worry if occasionally you have a moment like Prof Robert Kelly, who shot to global fame when his toddler sashayed into the room behind him while he was doing a BBC interview from home. That stuff is going to happen. You and your colleagues are all in the same boat and face similar stresses. Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, in a recent edition of the publication’s top-quality podcast, The Daily, tells how they have been working remotely for weeks and while colleagues are interacting differently today via digital channels, in some ways they are closer than ever because this is the first time they’re getting an insight into their colleagues’ home lives, as partners, pets and kids wander through the background of their meetings.

Get into a routine: This is a critical tip from Mouton and a tip shared by numerous Navy Seals and former Royal Marines who have made the change from soldiering to consulting on how to make teams work better. Develop a routine and stick to it. Rather than add pressure in an already stressful situation of remote working, it will help you structure your time more effectively and allow you to create the space you need to not just work. One of the biggest risks of working from home is that there is no dividing line between home and work. You have to find a balance.

Get dressed: This was important to Mouton. During the two years he spent working out what he would do to occupy his considerable intellect for the rest of his working life, Mouton made it a priority that he would not go to his home office until he’d had a shower and dressed in clothes he might have worn for a day at the office. The psychology of dressing for work is critical, especially now that you will be having meetings online – like it or not, your colleagues will be judging how well you’re holding up by your appearance. Also, if you plan to justify to your boss that you want to keep working this way once the lockdown is over, you need to be seen to be coping well.

Get a sounding board: “You can’t just sit there and only be by yourself,” said Mouton. These were the days before video conferencing and you may face the opposite problem of overbearing bosses, themselves desperately trying to justify their jobs, calling online meetings to ensure you’re doing what you are supposed to. If you are that boss: get a sounding board and stop bothering people who are supposed to be working.

Define tasks: Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” You can probably achieve more at home in half the time what you do at work, which comes with a multitude of distractions. Take advantage of that. Set tasks and put deadlines on those tasks. And stick to them. It may give you the time you need to complete more work, begin a side hustle, or create the space you need to spend with kids who are wondering why you are hiding from them “working”. Structure and discipline mean you are able to create time to achieve the balance you need to stay sane and productive at home.

Do a SWOT analysis: Another Mouton tip. Make a list of all your strong points, all your weak points, all the opportunities in your field, and all the threats. Be perfectly honest, brutal even. We seldom have time for sufficient introspection and now is a good time to get this done. You will emerge from the other side of the lockdown with a clearer view of what you want to do with your life and how you can go about achieving it.

Write a vision: This may sound a bit too much like pop psychology, but it helped Mouton become one of the richest people in the country in under 20 years. “Formulate your dream and plan of action: write it down, so that you can look again at it tomorrow,” he advised.

Read: We are overwhelmed by information from the moment we wake to the moment we go to bed. Now is a good time to be discerning and to broaden your knowledge base. Mouton read voraciously during his time of seclusion. And that informed his outlook.

Stay positive: “A negative person has never started or established anything positive,” Mouton wrote. This is not Pollyanna. This is not telling you to ignore the negatives. You always need to be cognisant of the environment and the risks it presents so that you can navigate them successfully. Everyone is in the same boat as you. In fact, you are probably better off than most people. Cut the self-pity. Everyone has the same fears about Covid-19. Of the health system collapsing. Of the economy going into depression. Those who approach this lockdown with a mindset that allows them to find opportunity in the morass will find it sets them apart from the rest when normality returns.

Whatever that normality presents.

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