As a child of two work-from-homers, pursuing a career path that involved working from home myself almost felt inevitable. Yet, two weeks into working as a freelance health and wellness journalist, I learned that neither dreaming about working from home nor watching my parents do it had prepared me for how much self-discipline, self-advocacy, and self-care the job would entail.
It took a lot of trial and error, but over the last four years, I’ve figured out what I need to stay focused and fight off the stress that comes along with working from home full time.
Now that the current coronavirus pandemic has resulted in everyone from teachers to therapists to trainers suddenly working from home, too, the lessons I’ve learned may come in handy.
Here are seven work-from-home strategies that have made the WFH life work for me.
1. Always Set An Alarm—And Listen To It
Without a boss to eye-ball exactly when I start my workday, hitting the snooze button is tempting. In my experience, though, the decision to wake up on time instead of hit snooze sets the tone for the day. On the mornings I wake with my alarm, I’m far more creative and productive than I am on the days I give my alarm the cold shoulder.
The few extra minutes of sleep you get between alarms isn’t deep, anyway. “Snoozing robs you of the benefit of those extra minutes of deep sleep and the benefit of consistently waking at the same time,” explains Dr. Chris Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution and medical director of Martha Jefferson Hospital’s Sleep Medicine Center. “It’s a lose-lose.”
If you constantly snooze for an extra 30 minutes, just start setting your alarm for thirty minutes later, he suggests.
But before you give in, know this: “It takes about two weeks for the brain and body to get used to waking up at the same time every single day,” he says. Try to commit to your alarm for 14 days and then reevaluate your wake time.
2. Don’t Work From Bed
While we’re on the topic of sleep hygiene, repeat after me: The bed is for sleep, not work.
“If you start working from bed, your brain will start to associate getting into bed with work, not sleep or intimacy,” says Winter. Before I dubbed bed a work-free zone, I often found my mind running through my to-do list over and over when I hit the hay at night.
If bed keeps calling your name during the workday, try to make it first thing in the morning so that you’re less likely to crawl back into it, he suggests.
3. Set Up A Make-Shift Office
Since you can’t work in bed, you need a space to dedicate to work.
Having a designated work station can help you switch into work mode in the morning—even if you’re not entering an actual office. The same goes for closing up shop at the end of the day.
“Think about the amenities you have at your typical office and do what you can to recreate them,” suggests therapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy. Decent internet connection? Check. Blue light-blocking glasses? Check. Family portraits, sticky notes, pens, and some natural light? Check, check, and check.
Obviously, setting up a home workspace is pretty easy if you have a spare bedroom. But if you live in a small space where living quarters are already tight, like I do, try creating a ritual every morning and night around setting up your workstation.
For instance, the table I work at also happens to be the table where I eat breakfast and dinner. After breakfast every morning, I wipe the table clean and haul over my computer and notebooks and set up for the day. Then, after work, I power down my computer, stow away any work materials, wipe down the table a second time, and light a candle.
4. Map Out Every WorkDay
I start every morning by mapping out my entire workday (often by the half-hour). Mapping out everything—including my shower, deadlines, interviews, prescription pick-ups, and coffee runs helps me maximize efficiency. It also minimizes the feeling that I don’t have time to get it all done.
As a Type-A personality, it’s no surprise that I do this—and that it works for me. However, it can be helpful for any personality type—especially if you’re new to working from home, says Symonne Kennedy, L.M.S.W., a psychotherapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
“Creating a schedule can help give you a sense of control amidst the chaos,” she says. “It’ll also help you remember to complete tasks that you might otherwise forget or overlook, alleviating future anxiety and tension.”
One note here: Learning exactly how much time you need for your usual activities will take some practice. Try not to feel discouraged if you underestimate how long certain things take at first.
5. Pencil Self-Care Into Your Schedule
Between deadlines, back-to-back meetings, carpooling, and more, our pre-pandemic days had their fair share of stress. However, this stress doesn’t hold a candle to the type of stress many are experiencing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, says Glashow.
“People are worried they’re not going to feed their families, they’re worried their loved ones are going to die, they’re stressed about paying their bills,” she says. This stress, she says, is “survival stress,” which is a specific fear-induced stress that triggers our flight or fight response and interferes with our ability to make decisions.
Given that, stress management is more important now than ever.
My tip? Squeeze your go-to self-care practices right into your workday schedule. Doing so helps me prioritize the things I do for my brain, heart, soul, and body just as much as the things I do for my clients.
At first, it might be jarring to see “Zoom yoga!” and “call Mom!” (or whatever your practices are), right next to “submit quarterly taxes” and “PROJECT DEADLINE.” I promise, though, that your short-term (and long-term) mental health will thank you.
6. Take Breaks Before You Need Them
“When you work in an office, there are tons of built-in breaks throughout the day that you don’t even realize,” says Glashow. (Think quick catch-ups by the coffee station or walks to get your mail.)
When you work from home—and especially when places like local coffee shops you might bop by midday are closed—you lose out on those little breaks. Without them, you end up spending way longer at your desk. Case in point: In my first week working from home, it took the right side of my butt falling asleep to realize that I hadn’t gotten up from my desk in almost eight hours.
To address this, I started adding little work pauses into my day. For instance, every day at 10:00 am I take a shower, and in the afternoon I take out the trash, go get the mail, and pick up anything I need for dinner. (Yep, I schedule ‘em right into that calendar).
Glashow agrees that these built-in breaks are a good idea, noting that meal times also offer a great built-in break. “Even if you feel like you could work right through lunch, shut your laptop and take a full 30 minutes to eat your food,” she says. “You’ll be more productive when you return than you would have been had you tried to crank straight through.”
7. Communicate Clearly With Anyone You Live With
Prior to the pandemic, my roommate spent the workday out of the apartment. When the pandemic changed that, I went from having complete peace and quiet all day to hearing never-ending episodes of Grey’s Anatomy playing three feet away from my work station. Distracting, to say the least.
After three days of Meredith Grey’s voice haunting every word I wrote, we had a sit-down conversation about our new situation. Our compromise? She watches TV in her room in the morning, giving me complete peace and quiet in the living room until noon. After that, I can stay put and keep working, but she has full access to the living room TV.
Regardless of what your personal work-from-home circumstances (and household) look like right now, it’s important to communicate your needs with any partners, family members, or roommates you live with.
“If your house-mate can work with rock-and-roll music on, they may have no idea that they’re disrupting your flow unless you tell them,” Glashow says.
Start the conversation by acknowledging that these circumstances may be challenging for them as well, Kennedy suggests. “Then, ask for what you need, explain why, and express that you’re willing to compromise,” she says.
An example: “I’m better able to focus on work when there’s no background noise. Would you be willing to wear earbuds, or work with me to come up with a solution that works for both of us?”
The Bottom Line On Working From Home During The Coronavirus Pandemic
I’ll be honest, even equipped with all these tried-and-true WFH tips, focusing, making deadlines, and being productive has still been extra challenging for me amidst this global pandemic.
After all, “there’s a difference between choosing to work from home and having no choice but to work from home because it’s the middle of a pandemic,” Glashow says.
So, while I believe these practices have been essential in helping me maintain some semblance of normalcy, know that it is absolutely okay (and even expected) if you’re struggling. We all are.
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