Working from home is a dream come true for some, but for others it can be extremely difficult or stressful, with a variety of problems that arise depending on the type of person you are. For those who like routine and structure, even turning on the computer can feel like a bridge too far, while for those who need natural cut-off points, the inability to physically leave the workplace can cause them to work throughout the evening and into the night.
Given that 42% of the U.S. labor force is now working from home full time, creating a suitable, comfortable and stress-free environment has never been more vital to maintaining professional standards as well as general well-being. With children coming home from school or toddlers lurking in the corridors, with pets or the laundry just visible in the corner of your eye, working in your own home can be a minefield of time traps.
This lack of a clear boundary between work and home can lead to increased stress, which in turn can increase the brain’s production of a hormone called cortisol. In small doses, cortisol is fine; however, chronic exposure can lead to fatigue, weight gain, sleep disturbance, and depression or low mood. In this instance, developing coping mechanisms is vital to maintaining a sense of self-worth and motivation.
With that in mind, the following are 11 tips on how to get the best out of your work environment and keep your sanity.
1. Designate a Workspace
Finding and setting up a mini office at home can immediately remove stress and bring focus. Deciding to only work in that specific area means that area alone is associated with work. This allows your living room, kitchen and bedrooms to breathe as social, living spaces, helping you separate your work life from your home life.
2. Act Like You’re Going into the Office
One of the easiest ways to make it feel like a normal workday is to act like it’s a normal workday. Set an alarm, dress up smart, make yourself a coffee (or go out and get the same coffee you used to get to start your day): make it feel like you are at work. When the workday finishes, change again so that your body can mentally register the switch.
3. Maintain a Daily Schedule
At the start of the day, take the time to map out how you want your day to go. Life never goes exactly according to plan, but having a specific structure and a clear goal in mind means that when you reach the end of that plan, and within a reasonable timeframe, you can set aside your work a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
It is important to be realistic with this. While it can be tempting to do everything that comes your way, stick to those items that are on your list and only those vital or time-crucial matters that appear throughout the day. Be fair to yourself as well: there is only so much you can do in one day, so set goals that are SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based.
When setting goals, narrow them down so that they are clear and precise. This gives you a greater chance of achieving what you’ve set yourself. Vague goals are impossible to keep. Instead of saying, “I want to get promoted,” say, “I aim to be promoted to Assistant Manager by June 2021.” This gives you a clear goal which you can stay focused on.
Can you measure when you have accomplished something? Goals like, “I will reply to my emails” or “I will write that report due next week” are vague, immeasurable and could feasibly keep you going into the early hours depending on the quantity and complexity of the work. Instead, set clear, measurable goals: “Write 1,000 words for the quarterly financial report due next week”; or “Reply to Nigel’s, Martha’s and Colin’s emails before noon.”
Impossible goals, although well-intentioned, can lead to a loss in motivation and a drop in mood. By contrast, a possible goal can stretch you and keep you motivated. “I’m going to write five reports”, for example, can seem overwhelming. However, by saying, “I’m going to write one report a week for the next five weeks”, the goal suddenly feels clear and achievable.
Don’t set yourself goals that aren’t relevant to your role or your specific responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. If that report is due tomorrow, don’t aim to finish that spreadsheet that your boss has asked you to touch up for next week.
Always set yourself a realistic deadline. This helps create a sense of urgency. “I will write 1,000 words by noon today”, for example, helps maintain focus, whereas “I will write that report for the board meeting” is loose and unwieldy, which means it can be easy to ignore and forget about.
4. Know When to Stop
Set alarms which tell you when your day begins and ends. It’s okay to work overtime sometimes, but keeping your laptop on you all night just because you can is not healthy and can lead to you working right up to the point when you go to sleep. Structure in an end to your work day and stick to it. Leave your laptop in your office space and don’t go back in there until the start of your next work day.
5. Lose the News
It’s tempting to keep checking the news, particularly in the middle of a pandemic and with an election coming up, but access to televisions, computers and smartphones at home can be more of a distraction that can lead to procrastination or stress, particularly given the times we are living in. Log out of your social media accounts during work hours; remove tempting bookmarks from your browser; keep the television off.
6. Use the Same Transitions from Home to Work
When you used to go to work, did you read on the bus or listen to music in the car? Read the newspaper with breakfast? Take the dog for a walk or go to the gym at the end of your work day?
Keep the same habits and routines you used when you were working in an office. This helps your brain wake up in the morning and wind down at the end of the day, which in turn helps you maintain focus during work hours and reduce stress afterwards.
7. Take Clear Breaks
Don’t just watch cats on YouTube for 20 minutes either; leave your office and go for a walk or talk to your housemate/partner. If it would help, call a friend for that extra social interaction. This should help counteract those feelings of loneliness as well as helping you to avoid complete isolation.
8. Make a To-Do List
If you struggle without structure, or if you like the satisfaction of a job well done, set up a to-do list on an app on your computer, such as Microsoft To Do. Each time a job is complete and the box is ticked, the app makes a happy little ‘ding’ sound, which is immensely satisfying and gives the sensation of progress and achievement.
9. Work Elsewhere
If the COVID-19 restrictions aren’t too severe in your area and you’re still struggling to focus, get out of the house and into a coffee shop or library so you can hunker down and smash through your work. The change of scenery should work just the same way as an office, and the lack of distractions will immediately help you focus.
10. Know When You Work Best
Are you a morning or evening person? Do you produce your best work at 7:30am or when the sun has set? If you know which time of the day your body prefers, coordinate your day accordingly and make sure the most intense, taxing work or meetings are arranged for when you are at your best.
If you’re not privy to flexible working hours, no matter! There are still times during a normal 9-5 working day when you know you perform better. Not a morning person? Do the easy but essential admin tasks at the start of the day and let your brain warm up before knuckling down to the more complex jobs in the afternoon.
11. Stay Connected
This can be through instant messaging with colleagues or via FaceTime or Skype with family and friends, but take the pressure off and maintain contact with people. Working from home can be lonely and stressful so be proactive and reach out to people. We as humans crave community; don’t let isolation prevent you from forming connections.
This can also be done with colleagues. When you were working at the office, did you and your colleagues go for a coffee at lunch on Tuesdays or out for Happy Hour on Thursday evenings? Replicate the same events online or over the phone so that you still feel like you’re part of a community that isn’t only communicating about work matters.
Be Kind to Yourself
We are living through unprecedented times and none of us are used to it, so go easy on yourself as you adjust to this new way of life. Eventually this too shall pass.