I’m an advocate for remote work. For the better part of my life, I’ve worked from home as a freelance technical writer. I’ve always hated regularly going to an office, and only did it when I had to. I’ve been fully remote for the last five years since joining Automattic, where everyone works from wherever they like. And I’ve been preaching that “every company that can let employees work from home should allow employees to work from home” ever since.
Today, a lot more people than normal are working from home — and it’s not an entirely positive experience. Working from home doesn’t typically feel as stressful, suffocating, exhausting, and uncertain as it does to the hundreds if not thousands of people now forced into it due to the ongoing pandemic. I stress this again; this is not how regular work-from-home feels. I consider myself a veteran at working from home, and even I’m not at my best since the self-isolation began.
You might be in a work-from-home situation for the long haul. You might realize you love it, and want to keep doing it once offices begin reopening. So, while I recognize the difficulty involved with being productive while surrounded by all members of your family (and coping with a global crisis), here are some practical tips from my years of experience that help me avoid burning out and keep me productive when working at home.
Create a routine and stick with it
Nothing is worse than feeling tired at the end of a day and realizing that not all of your productive hours were spent on actual work that needed to be done.
Set a schedule for when you start work and when you finish. Assuming that your workplace is asking that you work 9 to 5 (or some other specific set of hours), try your best to stick to that routine and not deviate from it too much. After all, you’re still at work even if you’re sitting at your kitchen table.
Unless you have clear work times, you’ll end up feeling like you’re working around the clock — take it from someone who has never been able to set up a routine and follow it strictly. If you feel like your work has increased tenfold since you began working from home, ask yourself, has the actual workload increased, or are you working longer than you should be? Chances are, you’re just working more time to accomplish for the same or a similar amount of work.
Why? Because you’re staying at home, so you begin to procrastinate a lot more than usual. (Yes, I know you “usually” procrastinate. Who doesn’t!) You may lose focus from your work as household things come up. You spend time idly staring at the computer screen because you don’t have a set time when you leave the “office,” so you think to yourself, “I’ll just work on this bit before bed.”
That’s the mistake. Unless you’re dividing your time in so that you have scheduled working hours just before bed, don’t put something off for later just because you’re at home.
Granted, this depends partly on what kind of job you do. If you’re a system administrator who needs to be on-call for emergencies, you may not be able to set firm time boundaries. But most jobs don’t necessarily require you to be present round the clock.
The bottom line is that you should take advantage of various tools that can help you manage your time effectively. For instance, you can use browser extensions like StayFocusd (Google Chrome), LeechBlock NG (Firefox), and SelfControl (for browsers on macOS computers) to limit your access to time-wasting sites when you should be working. You can go to the extent of creating completely separate profiles (either on your computer or just within the browser) for work and personal stuff. Having this discipline helps ensure that your working hours don’t spill over to your free time.
Have a dedicated place to work
If space isn’t an issue, designate a dedicated working space. Tell family members that when you’re in that space, you’re at the office so they must not disturb you unless necessary. This can be a corner of your bedroom, just make sure you have a proper desk.
If you can’t have a separate room to work from, use a pair of good headphones to isolate yourself from your surroundings. I use noise-canceling headphones like AirPods Pro and Bose QC 35 II, but any decent headphones — including ones that come with your phone, should be good!
You can also use background noises to help you focus on work — there are lots available on YouTube (rains, restaurants, sea waves, tropical forests; you name it). I love listening to rain sounds with thunderstorms! But if rain isn’t your thing, there are lots of other natural sounds to choose from! Just remember to turn those off before your Zoom call, though!
Not having a dedicated space where you can focus on work means you may struggle to focus, and it may take you longer to get work done. It’s an easy way to burn out since you won’t be using the time effectively. Carving out a space helps you focus, and since you can leave the space (or take your headphones off) at the end of the workday, it also helps you stick to a schedule.
Minimize all digital distractions
Occasionally checking the social media is fine, but you may want to avoid getting into an argument about why that new Netflix movie is terrible while you’re supposed to be working.
A few friends have told me that their social media usage has increased a lot since they’ve been spending more time at home, and that’s hurting their productivity. That’s expected. But it’s not too difficult to avoid getting distracted when you’re working. You can use the browser extensions I mentioned above to force yourself out of social media when you work.
The result? You can get the work done in time and have a raging discussion about your new not-so-favorite movie later. And your work didn’t suffer because you got that done when you still had the energy!
Take frequent breaks
I get up from my desk at the top of every hour, even if just for two or three minutes. Taking frequent breaks means you’re not getting bored or tired sitting down at your computer for a prolonged period.
It also has health benefits, according to an article on Mayo Clinic. When I get up, pace for a bit, stretch, and then get back to my chair, I instantly feel recharged. Why not give it a try and see if you feel the same?
Have a list of things to do
Having a list of tasks that you want to complete on a day makes it easier to keep track of where you are on your working day. It takes the list of tasks out of your head and puts them somewhere you can see. That means less energy spent trying to remember all the things you’re supposed to do, and more put toward actually achieving them.
It also means less chance of burnout since you’re taking pressure off of your brain!
I recommend writing that list of tasks either on a physical notepad or in a notetaking app like Simplenote*. I use different notetaking apps for different purposes. Apart from Simplenote, I also use Apple Notes and Bear to keep notes of some of the longer thoughts and elaborate to-dos.. The idea is to get them off your mind and free up that headspace.
Some people suggest writing your list of tasks the night before so it’s waiting for you in the morning, but you choose whatever works best for you. As long as you have a list, it will make you more productive.
This also depends on the type of work that you do — you may not always know what you need to do until you start working. But even then, see if there are things that you know you will need to do (or at least, broad areas you know you need to pay attention to) and write them down.
Relax when you’re supposed to be relaxing
How we spend our “off” time has a significant impact on how our physical and mental state is when we’re “on” the job.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that if I keep poking at work stuff long after my working hours are over, I’m more fatigued and burn out more quickly when I’m on the job the next day. So I’ve started focusing on other things when I’m not actively at work.
I don’t mean completely shutting off all work communication — though some people do that. For me, it just means not getting sucked into the work communication (e.g., Slack) just because I’m still on the computer when I’m not working.
If you’re also at your computer when you’re not working, try to focus on things that relax you. Watching a movie, reading a book, and playing games are great ways to relax your mind. I like to watch lighthearted comedy shows like Spongebob Squarepants, Friends, and All Hail King Julien. I reserve more intense shows like DARK for weekends only!
Giving yourself free and relaxed time is crucial now more than ever, since many of us are isolated and can’t just hang out with our friends whenever we want. Brains need entertainment! If you let your mind relax for a bit, it will be recharged the next time you’re working, so there’s less chance of burning out.
I hope the tips above help you avoid burnout when working from home. I always love talking about this topic, so if you have questions or need help improving your new work-from-home balance, feel free to send me an email!
If you have more tips to share with me and my readers on how to avoid burning out when working from home, please share in the comments section below!
* Simplenote is a product of Automattic, a company where I work. Unlike WordPress.com, which I started using seven years before joining Automattic, I started using Simplenote shortly after joining and I recommend it for its key feature, simplicity.