Staying Sane While Working at Home

A woman holding her head in her hands, over a laptop

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Working from home has its downsides.

At first, you relish the novelty of working in pyjamas and walking upstairs to work. But once the honeymoon ends, you may discover loneliness and stress are the new neighbours.

Staying happy, healthy and productive requires effort when you’re working at home. This essay provides five suggestions for keeping things on an even keel.

1. Physically Separate Work and Play

In the UK, the average commute is 30 minutes each way. As a result, most people consider the lack of travel a key perk of working at home. Who wouldn’t want an extra hour at home? But proximity is a double-edged sword, and the lack of physical separation can blur the lines between work and life.

It becomes easy to do a few emails at the weekend. Work is only a few steps away at all times, and even closer if you work on your sofa or the dining room table. Without due care, your family time vanishes and a sense of always being at work pervades.

This lack of separation can also affect your productivity. All the distractions of home life are inches away. It takes willpower to avoid sitting on Netflix or cleaning the kitchen when you should be working.

While there’s no silver bullet for these problems, it helps to dedicate space in your house for work. Put your desk in a spare bedroom, or at least a different corner of the room. This physical separation will help you leave work behind when you finish for the day.

If your living space is too small to allow this, be sure to clear away work items when the day finishes. At least your house will look like a home again, rather than a permanent office.

2. Define Your Time Boundaries and Stick to Them

Working from home challenges more than your physical boundaries. If you’re not careful, your time boundaries may erode to the point where work occurs around the clock.

When working in a physical office, the idea of taking a call at home in the evening is unusual. But when your home is your office, it’s easier to violate your personal time. And once you take a few phone calls at weird hours, more appear. Before you know it, a bunch of people in another time zone think you’re generally available.

To counter this threat, decide what your working hours are and stick to them. It doesn’t matter if you want to work from 8am to 4pm or 10am to 6pm. But when the end of the day comes, switch things off and become unavailable. You have the right to a personal life.

If your job requires occasional evening calls, decide how many evenings you’re willing to spare. Then block the others out in your calendar. Stand firm by this timetable, otherwise you’ll be back where you started again.

If your job doesn’t respect your time, find another one.

3. Have Fewer Meetings, but Make Them Count

Assuming the lighting and air are good, you can sit in hours of face-to-face meetings without negative side effects.

The same is not true for Zoom calls. For reasons I haven’t discerned, they’re significantly more draining than their physical counterparts. I assume it’s because we’re forced to concentrate on multiple things at once. Rather than casually gazing around a room, we’re subjected to numerous video images, including a distracting view of our own face. It can feel like watching five television channels at the same time.

If you’re working from home for a long time, it’s necessary to reduce the number of meetings to keep your sanity. But equally, I encourage you to make the remaining meetings count. Switch on your webcam, close your browser, and be present. People can tell if you’re not paying attention.

If the idea of giving a meeting your full attention doesn’t appeal, it’s probably a meeting you should decline. (See this article for tips on how to do that).

4. Get Outside Every Day

Knowledge work isn’t the most active profession, but at least when you’re in a real office there’s a bit of walking involved. Firstly, there’s the commute, which involves a modicum of motion in the worst case. But once in the office, there’s usually a fair amount of moving between meetings, water coolers and colleagues’ desks.

Working from home working takes sedentary to a new level. With all your creature comforts within arm’s reach and no colleagues to go bother, life becomes stationary. I’ve seen days where my step count is as low as 1,700.

Assuming you want to live to a ripe old age, it’s important to be active every day you work from home. If you’re not already an exercise junkie, try to plan at least a regular walk every day to keep your body from jellifying.

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to exercise, consider splashing out on a fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch. They do a great job of gamifying the task of getting fit. Before long, you’ll be doing everything in your power to keep your new wrist buddy satisfied with your activity levels.

Make sure you book this activity into your calendar, otherwise it will soon be trumped by other “more important” work things.

5. Take Care of Yourself and Others

Depending on your circumstances, working from home can lonely and depressing.

If you’re not seeing other human beings regularly, life loses a bit of sparkle. Getting up, moving ten feet, working eight hours, then Netflixing until bedtime can feel like Groundhog Day, again and again.

Hopefully, you’re one of the people who find working from home a delight. If so, that’s awesome. But you must realise some of your colleagues won’t feel the same. And it’s important to be aware of how to help.

Here are a few things you can do to help yourself and others keep sane:

Whatever you do tomorrow, be kind and supportive to the people you’re working with. And be kind to yourself as well. Not every day can be productive right now.