Working from home has a lot of upsides. No commute, being closer to family, easy access to snacks, dressing more comfortably: these are just a few of the perks that come from your home space becoming your work space. But therein lies the risk of working from home: if you’re not careful, your home can start to feel like just another office. The challenge of doing good work from home is minimizing distractions while also maintaining a healthy separation of work life from home life. Establishing that equilibrium can be tricky; here are some tips to help you find that balance.
Build Your Own Office
Creating your own workspace at home is vitally important, not just for being able to get your work done but to create a sense of separation between your home life and work life. It can be psychologically difficult to transition into “work mode” if you don’t have an environment at home that’s conducive to it. You also don’t want to feel like your home—your sanctuary, your place of rest from the hustle and grind of life—is your office all the time because then it’ll be hard to “switch off” and relax. This is why, space permitting, having a separate room or area that you can cordone off as your office is important.
The ideal situation is to designate a room as your workplace if you have enough space to do so. You can also turn a table or desk into your workspace; the trick is to work in an area that is either NOT a shared space with family/roommates or is in a low traffic area in your home. You want a space that is comfortable but relatively free of distractions (so no TV, game systems, or anything else that can draw your attention away like a magpie seeing a shiny thing). Quiet is also very important: a room/area with good acoustics or soundproofing that can shield you from what’s going on elsewhere in your home can be critical for your sanity (not to mention keeping your online meetings from sounding like a live concert).
“You also want to make sure you have good lighting so others can clearly see you at virtual meetings,” said Gina Pinch, Rio Salado's Faculty Chair for Business, Management, and Public Administration. Getting a ring light is a cost-effective way of ensuring you look well-lit during virtual meetings.
Organize Tasks By Energy Level
We all have times of the day where we seem to be the most productive. Some of us are morning folks and have a lot of energy right at the top of the day, while others might not be cooking with gas until the afternoon. Research has shown that human beings, on average, tend to only really be productive for 3-4 hours a day before their ability to concentrate and work at peak capacity begins to diminish. Keeping this in mind, the smart strategy is to schedule your most complex and demanding tasks to coincide with your peak productivity hours. Save less demanding tasks—like answering emails, scheduling meetings, or watching videos for research—for those portions of the day where you’re on a cool-down, energy-wise.
One of the hardest parts about working from home is not getting distracted by your at-home responsibilities while working. As much as you’re able to, schedule your obligations and chores around your work day. Feed the kids and the pets before you log in; take care of laundry and dishes either as part of a lunch break or during your off-hours. Resist the urge to embark on a complicated cooking project that will take hours to do; even something as simple as slow-cooking some meat while you’re in the office could go wrong if you’re not paying attention. You don’t want to have your mind worried about “oh, did I turn that off/did this get done?” while you’re also working. Set those tasks aside so you can give them your full attention when you’re not working; otherwise, you’re going to end up doing two things badly instead of one thing well.
Virtual Office Hours
Another potential use for your peak productivity hours is to make them your “office hours.” Let the people you live with know that there are certain hours during the day where you’re unavailable for anything that isn’t an emergency. Making your office hours your “prime time” hours gives you the best chance of getting critical work done without distractions.
That being said: this is easier said than done, especially if you have young children in the home. If you have a partner living with you who’s free during your office hours, have them be the “on-call” parent who puts out any metaphorical or literal fires while you do what needs to be done (and, of course, return the favor when they need to be shut-in their own home office for awhile).
Another advantage of holding office hours is that you can let your team know that this is the best time to contact you. So if you have a distraction-free block of time and want to be available to chat with co-workers or hold meetings, having “office hours” helps make that easier to facilitate.
Bookend Your Days
A daily routine is an important part of a working life. It helps get yourself out of neutral and puts you in the right frame of mind to tackle certain tasks. The daily commute/settling into an office is a pretty easy routine to enact; working from home, you don’t have that so it’s key to come up with your own routines to get your mind right. Maybe it’s taking a shower, having breakfast, and/or doing some exercises before booting up your laptop. Maybe it’s taking your dog for a walk or journaling or spending some time with your loved ones before “clocking in.” Doing the same thing consistently every day before you work will make it easier to create a separation in your mind between “home life” and “work life.”
The same principle applies to the end of your work day. Having a closing time ritual gives you an off-ramp to ease back into domestic life.
“One practice that might be helpful is creating or updating your ‘to do’ list at the end of the workday,” Pinch said. “This allows you to put down on paper things you need to do so your mind is free to focus on your personal life.”
Don’t Be Afraid To Take Breaks
Our bodies weren’t made to sit in front of computers all day. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and a host of other health problems. Every 50-60 minutes take a few minutes to get up, step away from the computer, and move around a bit. Stretch your legs, do some quick at-home exercises, go to the kitchen to rehydrate, maybe even take a quick walk outside. These quick activity breaks will relax your muscles, ease building tensions, and are also good for your mental health. Our brains can only handle so much sustained activity at a time; taking a quick break gives us a chance to reset ourselves, process information, and get ourselves ready to take on new tasks.
When you have a longer break (like a lunch hour), try not to spend it on the computer. It can be tempting to hop on the internet, maybe watch a video or two, but it’s best to save that kind of recreational screen time for after hours. Use your lunch break as time to refuel, touch base with your loved ones if they’re in the house with you, and go outside for a bit. Don’t forget that your body needs at least 10-30 minutes of exposure to natural sunlight every day to produce Vitamin D, a vitamin you need to stay healthy.
When You’re Off, You’re OFF
Maintaining a work-life balance is essential for your mental health. Part of that process of balancing involves setting healthy boundaries with your off-time. When you’re not working, do not check your work email. Don’t do any work you don’t need to do (and if it really NEEDS to be done, it should be done during working hours). Again, like working from home with children, this is much easier said than done: you may work for a company whose culture encourages always being “on.”
“When you respond to emails after work hours, your co-workers and subordinates may feel pressure to respond outside of their work hours,” Pinch said.
You may find it hard to say no, but you should. Your personal time is important, not just for your own well-being but also for your work life: a well-rested, relaxed, happy person is a more productive and creative person. If you don’t have time to decompress and get away from work, it greatly increases your risk of burning out. Studies show that employees who continue to deal with work after hours experience increased anxiety, have poorer quality sleep, and even experience lower rates of personal relationship satisfaction. Working for a company that expects you to be available at any time can be hazardous for your health.