I have worked from home/worked on the road for the last 5 years, so I am no stranger to what it’s like to wake up in the same place I answer work e-mails. I am also very familiar with the intense boredom and lack of social contact that one suddenly faces when making the transition from office life to work-from-home life.
I started working from home in 2015 as a videographer and photographer, and this experience triggered a high relapse in my eating disorder. The lack of structure, feedback from supervisors, collective energy of coworkers, and minimal contact with the outside world impacted my mental health more than I knew it would.
I have heard many people glamorize working from home or working remotely (oh you’re so lucky, you get to work in your PJs!). And while I hope to show you that, yes, it can be a very enriching experience, I want to validate that the transition from an office to working from home is incredibly uprooting and can stir up a ton of anxiety, loneliness, and a feeling of “going completely batshit crazy.”
I want to share with you what I have learned over the last 5 years, and how I’ve been able to reduce my anxiety, set boundaries, and find structure while working from home.
1. Create an Intentional Routine-Then Shake it Up
Routine will be your best friend, until it strangles you. Follow me on this.
For the first few weeks of working from home for the first time, create a routine for yourself. Write it out in a journal. Be specific, and set what time you plan to start your work day and end your work day. Write down what time you will take breaks, when your lunch hour is, and what time you will do physical movement or something personal for yourself.
Find a routine you can stick to, but also one that keeps you challenged and working. Think about if your boss was making the routine for you: When would they have you start working? When would they have you go on lunch? How often would they suggest you take breaks?
If your boss is/was a dick, think about what a loved one would suggest.
Now here’s the part that is really important: Before your routine starts to become habitual, change it.
I find every two weeks is a good amount of time to stick to one routine. After two weeks, change your routine completely. Instead of working out in the evening, try working out in the morning. Instead of taking your lunch breaks at 11AM, try taking them at 1PM.
Creating a shift in your routine will help prevent the feeling that nothing is changing-your environment is already staying very static because you’re working from home, so by changing other aspects of your day to day (like the routine you set for yourself), your mind will start to experience that variety as novel, which keeps you present, focused, and energized.
2. Create a “Work Zone”
Working from home for the first time is like suddenly being told you have to poop in the same room that you cook.
Ok-not exactly. But kind of. You associate your bathroom with where you doo-doo, and your kitchen with where you make food. The idea of doing one of those activities in the other space, no matter how clean, seems plain wrong. This same association needs to be created when you start to work from home-otherwise your brain will begin to associate your entire home with work, and you’ll never feel like you have the chance to rest. Alternatively, your brain will refuse to re-associate your home as anything other than a rest place, and you’ll find it impossible to work.
The lack of separation between where you work and where you rest can create a huge rift in your ability to be productive when it’s time to work, and to actually relax when the work day is done.
I miss the good old days of finishing work and being so excited to leave that I would pre-pack my bag 20 minutes before it was time to clock out. Then I’d race home in my car, burst through the door, drop my shit and let out a sigh of relief. “Honey, I’m home!”
This sense of relief comes from leaving one physical space that represents work, effort, and sometimes stress, and entering a physical space that represents rest, recovery, and safety.
Creating two, very separate physical spaces in your home for where you work and where you find reprieve are essential.
If you are fortunate to have many rooms in your home, designate one of those rooms as an office-NOW. Take a day to rearrange furniture, decorate, sage-do what you can with what you can to turn any spare room into an office/work room.
If you don’t have many/any rooms in your home, make a nook. A corner or physical space in the room that is your “work zone.” For me, it’s one corner in the hotel room I’m living in right now. I moved furniture around so that what was once a coffee table is now a desk, and what was a bedroom bench is now my chair. I positioned them near a window so I could see outside, and designated this “my work nook.” When I am sitting here, I am working. When I am not working, I am not sitting there.
Curveball-switch this up every two weeks too. Rearrange your furniture in your “work zone.” Change the location of your nook in the studio. Whatever you can do to keep your WFH brain on its toes and remind it that you aren’t stuck.
3. Take Breaks
For the love of god, give yourself a break. Emotionally. Physically. Mentally. We are all doing the best we can, and there is no guidebook for how to deal with this stuff.
What we can do, is have some self-compassion. We can be kind to ourselves. So give yourself breaks. Put them in your calendar, and take them often. Breaks don’t include going to the bathroom or getting a glass of water-those are body cues being responded to. I want you to take intentional, carved out breaks, where your body and mind get relief from your work.
This is a great time to “step outside your work zone” and go somewhere else. Give yourself at least 10 minutes to be away from work.
4. Go Outside (If It’s Possible For You)
I know there may be different mandates on being outside right now based on where you live, and different viewpoints based on your decisions even if your country/state isn’t telling you to stay indoors. If it’s in your practice (as the yogis say), go outside at minimum once a day. Even if it’s just for five minutes. Getting fresh air, putting your feet on the earth, and letting your senses soak in the energy of the planet around you can do wonders to reset you if you’re feeling zonked out from being inside all day.
If you can, talk a long walk. Add it into your routine. I find doing something outside for 20 minutes a day, whether it’s a walk, jog, or going to the store can be incredibly grounding and help get my out of my head.
If you can’t go outside, find ways to falsify nature: watch Planet Earth, look at photos of the outdoors and play nature sounds, or mindfully look out your window for a few minutes.
5. Meal Prep
Lots of people who work in offices are used to eating in food courts, out at restaurants, or having goodies coming in the office regularly for snacks. The sudden need to cook an additional meal in the day can add stress, especially when it feels like resources are limited. Additionally, the sudden availability of your entire pantry can turn food into an easy distraction from work (cue staring at the open fridge thinking “did anything new pop in here since I last checked ten minutes ago?”)
Meal prepping is now your best friend. If you aren’t familiar with meal prepping, it’s actually something that started in the bodybuilding and fitness culture, as it was an easy way for people on strict diets to have all their meals laid out weight-watcher’s style. The notion of meal prepping has evolved and is now mainstream in many ways, and it will help tremendously whether you’re on a diet or not.
The idea is to pre-cook 5–7 days worth of food in one day, then divide it out into separate Tupperware or containers. When lunchtime rolls around, your meal is already pre-made, pre-portioned, and ready to eat. This saves a lot of time, and a lot of work during the day. This allows you to take your lunch hour as a full break to eat, rest, and take a true break from “doing.”
6. Work Wardrobe, Home Wardrobe
Similarly to having a designated “work zone,” I find having a designated “work wardrobe” helps delineate work from rest. I assign certain clothes in my closet as “work clothes” and the rest are my “home clothes.”
Even though I’m not leaving the house, I put on my “work clothes” the same way I would if I were headed to the office. These can still be comfortable, casual clothes-even if you have “work pajamas” and “house pajamas,” this creates a distinction in your mind.
The idea is to let your brain know “when I’m wearing these clothes, I’m going to work. When I’m done, I can change out of them and leave work behind.”
7. Connect to Human Beings
Losing human contact is very difficult when making the transition from working in an office to working from home. Even if you don’t have deep, meaningful conversations at the water cooler, you’re surrounded by faces, voices, and “hellos” throughout the day.
If you can, find ways to incorporate these small points of human contact throughout your day. Ask your friends to set up little video chats or video check ins. My friends and I use Marco Polo, which is an app that lets you leave video messages for friends to view and respond to when they want. It’s so nice to take a break from work and see a short video from a friend, and to be able to respond with a quick video myself.
You can also find many online resources for group connection. Yoga studios are offering online classes and wellness coaches are offering online group coaching (myself included). You can also encourage your friend group to do weekly video chat happy hours, family group chat hangs, or even bingo over video.
8. Change All of The Above, Every 1–2 Weeks
You know all the tips I just gave you? Create change in ALL of them, every 1–2 weeks. In an office, change happens rapidly around you without you even realizing it-Susan is wearing a new scarf. Dale is out sick today, so no loud laughs from him. Your boss springs a spontaneous meeting that fucks up your deadline or the coffee machine stops working so Sally is doing a Starbucks run.These might not feel like big changes, but you are responding to each new, novel, and slightly different experience that happens daily.
Without realizing it, by working from home you’ve lost all of the outside “buzz” that your brain responds, adapts, and connects to on a daily basis. You’re left with the familiarity of your own home, the NOT NEWNESS of your internal world, and work with no distractions.
The remedy is changing everything every 1–2 weeks. Move your work zone to a new part of the house. Rearrange your furniture. Change the clothes you designated as your work wardrobe. Start eating something different for breakfast or lunch. Shift your break times or lunch hour. Whatever you do, change it up.
I hope you found these tips useful, informative, and at the very least, practical. These are baseline tips to create a solid framework from which to work at home with a little more ease and structure, while creating boundaries to protect yourself from feeling as though you are always at work.
Sending lots of love, and happy coping.
Originally published at https://www.copeholic.com on March 19, 2020.