We’re all being forced to make adjustments right now. We’re working from home. Kids are out of school. Companies are scrambling to determine how to respond to the economy. The Government is trying to flatten the curve of the virus.
It’s going to be a period of massive change, but can also be an opportunity. Stanford Psychology Professor Dr. BJ Fogg says “There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.” We woke up Monday and our environments and routines were forced to change. There wasn’t time to prepare, but there is time to respond.
If we do it right, we can avoid the risk of remote work becoming a blur of constant work. Suddenly, people who had never brought work home before are expected to make it work. We can’t let isolation turn into a dull monotony of quasi-work and life; we don’t need work life balance to become another form of anxiety.
How do we maintain the proper separation of work and life when the line starts to blur?
Each person’s situation will be unique and this article caters to people with a remote work conducive job, but hopefully these tips may help make life a little more bearable. Feel free to reach out with questions or share ideas that have worked for you. Each situation is unique!
Recommendation 1: Don’t Stop “Going” to Work. Build a Ritual
We each have our own morning ritual. I wake up, come downstairs, give the dog a belly rub, let the dog out, make coffee, feed the dog, write three things I’m grateful for, drink the coffee and then meditate. Writing this down, perhaps my dog has a morning ritual and I’m just a passenger. From there it varies but at some point end up showered and dressed and on my way to work.
These rituals are important, and still during the COVID-19. Find a time to wake up and do things you enjoy in the morning. Rolling out of bed 10 minutes before your first meeting or call will blur the start of the day. Take one of the things you wished you could do in the morning and substitute it for the morning commute during this time.
When you’re ready to “go to” work, find a way to “arrive” that separates your morning from work. This is your new morning commute. It could be a room in your house you designate for work. It could be opening your laptop. It could be putting on a pair of noise cancelling headphones. If you don’t have a designated space, maybe it’s a baseball cap that you wear while you’re working. It’s important to signal to yourself that you’re now at work. If you don’t signal that you’ve arrived, it becomes harder to know when you’ve left.
You’re signaling for yourself but this ritual could signal to your partner or roommates that you’re working too. I don’t have kids, but having been one for the first half of my life, I doubt they’ll respect the signal. It’s worth trying, but I am highly unqualified for giving parenting advice and won’t try. I haven’t found a signal that will make my dog respect work time either for what it’s worth.
Personally, I have a pair of headphones that I put on as my signal when it’s time to focus and I have a room in my house set up to work. If I want to use my computer outside of work hours, I take it out of the room and sit somewhere else to signal to myself that I’m not working.
Recommendation 2: Take a Break
Breaks are naturally built into our day - the coffee run, the co-worker who stops by, lunch, walking to meetings, or even the commute. These sometimes feel like distractions but are natural reminders to step away from what we’re doing and refresh. It might be easy to lose yourself at home in work.
Take breaks like you would during the day. Get up and go for walks to build endorphins to help remove stress. Set up virtual meetings with coworkers to catch up. Leave your “office” environment for lunch and shut down email or chat. Even just going to the kitchen or the patio will separate you from working.
It’s easy to get into the habit of measuring our jobs by the number of hours we work. At home, especially for creative work, you should measure yourself on the work you’re getting done. As you move through the day, you’ll start to recognize when your attention fades or when you slow down. Listen to your body and take breaks naturally when you complete tasks. Research suggests we may max out for creative type work around 6 hours a day compared to the 8 hour day designed originally for factory work. We’re each going to be different - figure out how to be most effective and don’t force it when you aren’t. Here's a great article from HBR on how to work more effectively.
Recommendation 3: Avoid Blending
Avoid the temptation to blend work and personal. This could create habits that will be hard to break. If you don’t have a busy day try to finish your work in 4 hours, instead of working slowly over 8 hours with Netflix on in the background. This will create a split for you so that you can enjoy the activities you want guilt free with work behind you. If you’re not careful work will potentially become omnipresent which will set the wrong expectations for work life balance when normal work resumes. Disciplined working from home takes time if you’ve never done it before. Create a clear line and hold yourself accountable.
Recommendation 4: Go Home at the End of the Day
Just like we started the day, find a way to go home. Leave the room you were working in. Close your computer. Turn off your phone. Change into comfortable clothes. Greet your partner or family like you would coming home on a normal work day. Go on a walk. Find a way to “end” your day to signal to yourself that it’s time to switch into personal or family mode and relax (or give your partner a break if they’ve been keeping the kids occupied so you could take conference calls). Create a ritual and put boundaries out there for yourself. It may feel cheesy but these barriers are important.
I personally close all browser windows and applications on my computer and turn off email/chat notifications to signal the end of the day. If I open my computer later, there won’t be anything to pull me back in. This also gives me a clean slate to start the next day. I use the last 15 or 20 minutes to prioritize what I need to do tomorrow so it doesn’t hang over my evening. I leave the “office” and pick an activity or hobby that will signal the switch.
Recommendation 5: Create a New Habit or Goal You Can Look Forward To
The evolving COVID-19 has hit our psychology from multiple angles. It’s isolated us from our communities, friends and events that we use to relax. It’s created uncertainty about health, finances and jobs. It’s taken away our vacations and ability to travel. It’s shrunk the bubble of what we can control in our own lives.
Anticipation is a powerful source of joy. Control is important to our mental and physical health. Instead of bemoaning the loss of control and lack of things to look forward to, we need to adjust to this new normal and do what we can.
Take the time from your commute and find something new. Maybe you take a walk with your partner, start a new workout plan, take a little bit more time to cook dinner or spend time reading to your children. Take the extra 30 minutes to sign up for an online course, pick up a new book or work on a hobby that has been on the back burner. It will take time for us to adjust but we need to have something we can be excited or look forward to. If none of this works, book a ticket for a year from now for an awesome vacation.
There is very little we can control right now. If we do our part to practice social distancing, we can each help shorten the lifespan of this crisis. One of the only other things we can control is our attitude. Find your own silver lining, whether it's working on yourself or taking the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones. Be grateful for what you have today and maybe one day you’ll look back on this time and be grateful for the new habits you created or cherish the time you got to spend with the people you love within your home.