I've Worked from Home for 5 Years—Here's How I Stay Productive and Curb Anxiety
For some, working from home sounds like a dream: sending emails from your couch (sans pants), "commuting" from your bed to your desk, escaping the drama of office politics. But the novelty of these work-from-home perks can wear off quickly. I know because I experienced it firsthand.
I started working from home just six months after graduating from college in 2015. I'd made a big move to Boston with my then-boyfriend from Des Moines, and fortunately, my employers had allowed me to continue working for them remotely. I remember friends being envious of my WFH status, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think I'd hit the jackpot.
But within a few weeks of trading the cubicle life for my kitchen table, feelings of deep isolation and disconnection set in. Looking back, I now realize exactly why that happened.
For starters, I had close to no human interaction, physical or emotional, until my now-husband came home from work in the evenings. And since I worked from my apartment, I struggled to "switch off" once the workday was over. On top of that, my days lacked structure, causing my self-discipline to dwindle. I stopped eating at designated times, I found it difficult to work out regularly, and I didn't know how to set boundaries between work and regular life. Combined, these seemingly little things caused my mental health to suffer.
What I didn't know at the time was that this is a reality for many remote workers. Case in point: Research from Cornell University suggests that remote workers may be at a greater risk for feeling personally and professionally isolated compared to their in-office colleagues. What's more, a 2017 report from the International Labor Organization, which reviewed several studies on work-life balance from 15 countries, shows that WFH employees tend to report higher stress levels and more trouble sleeping than their office-worker counterparts.
Now, with the added stress of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic—which has led millions of people around the world to work from home for the foreseeable future—these feelings of anxiety and isolation may become exacerbated for remote workers, particularly those who are new to the lifestyle, says psychotherapist Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.F.T.
After all, it might feel "terrifying" in itself that something as uncertain as an ongoing pandemic has completely changed your work life, explains Wright. "This is especially true for those who are used to going to an office and seeing people every day," she notes.
"There is going to be a massive shift in behavior, thoughts, and feelings," adds Wright. "Since we’re isolated, we need to figure out how to create connection within our physical disconnection." (Related: You're Not Alone—There Really Is a Loneliness Epidemic)
After spending nearly five years as a remote employee—and dealing with the anxiety and isolation that can come with working from home—I've found six simple strategies that make all the difference. Here's how to make them work for you.
Maintain Your Morning Routine
When you're working from home, it's tempting to roll out of bed and go straight to your computer, PJs and all, to start the workday. But maintaining structure, especially in the mornings, can go a long way in helping you feel calm, cool, and productive, says Wright.
"Routine helps you feel grounded," she explains. "Creating purpose and structure with some normalcy can help you feel grounded and help your brain cope with all of the other unknowns."
So, when your alarm goes off, start your day just like you would if you were actually going into the office: Wake up on time, shower, and get dressed. No one's saying you need to wear a stuffy suit or uncomfortable slacks all day—you don't even need to put on jeans if you don't want to. Instead, try some WFH-approved loungewear that's comfy, but doesn't make you feel like a hot mess.
Have a Designated Workspace
Whether it's an entire room, a breakfast nook in your kitchen, or a corner in the living room, having a designated workspace is key. This is especially true now that places like cafes and libraries are temporarily closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving fewer ways to change the scenery between work and downtime, notes Wright.
To maximize productivity in your workspace, create a setup that mimics elements of an actual office. Some starting points: Make sure you have a strong internet connection, good lighting, a comfy chair, and an inventory of supplies so you're not wasting time looking for stuff. (Here are more ways to organize your workspace to boost productivity.)
Once the workday is over, leave your to-dos in that designated space so you can mentally disconnect from work and properly recharge, says Wright.
If you're in a small space where it's difficult to separate "work" and "home," try practicing simple, everyday habits that can cue the start and end of your workday. "For example, light a candle during work hours and blow it out when you're done," suggests Wright.
Practice Self-Care Regularly—Not Just In Times of Stress
In a 2019 State of Remote Work report by the software company Buffer, nearly 2,500 remote workers from around the world were asked about the ups and downs of working from home. While many touted the benefits of their flexible schedule, 22 percent of respondents said they struggle with unplugging after work, 19 percent named loneliness as their biggest difficulty, and eight percent said they find it hard to stay motivated.
Of course, people can struggle with things like work-life balance and motivation for a number of reasons. Regardless, though, self-care (or lack thereof) can definitely play a role, especially for remote workers, says Cheri McDonald, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., an expert on complex trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Think about it this way: For most people, the 9-5 life provides daily structure. You arrive at the office at a certain time, you get your work done, and once you leave, that's your time to decompress. But when you work from home, that structure mainly depends on you, notes McDonald. For the most part, it's on you to decide when to clock in, clock out, and practice self-care.
So, how do you create a structure that leaves room for work and self-care? First, remember that self-care isn't just something you practice only when you feel stressed; self-care means making the decision to invest in taking care of yourself as a regular practice, explains McDonald.
"Begin by choosing something that you enjoy in all areas of self-care," suggests McDonald. "Plan ahead as to what is the easiest way to feel good, nurtured, and cared for in your situation."
For instance, a regular mindfulness practice—even if it's just a daily five-minute prayer, breathing practice, or meditation—can serve as self-care. Or maybe you feel rejuvenated after stimulating your brain with a crossword puzzle at lunchtime. Perhaps a morning phone call or text exchange with a loved one helps you tackle the day with motivation. Whatever self-care looks like for you, the point is to regularly show up for yourself, not just for your work, says McDonald. "You can only do for others as you do for yourself," she notes.
Exercise to Keep Your Brain Sharp
One of the biggest caveats of working from home is inactivity. After all, it's easy to let exercise take a backseat when you're in the comfort of your home all day. Plus, prioritizing your physical health is even harder now that most gyms and fitness studios are temporarily closed. (Thankfully, these trainers and studios are offering free online workout classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.)
Not that you need a reminder, but tons of research shows that exercise does your mind and body good. In a matter of moments, moving your body can pump your muscles with extra oxygen, strengthen your lungs, and flood your body with mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (Here's more proof that exercise boosts brainpower.)
To create a consistent workout routine in your new WFH setup, pick a time of day for exercise that suits your lifestyle, personality, and work schedule—and stick to it, says McDonald. In other words: "If you're not a morning person, don't try to work out at 6 a.m.," she says.
It also helps to switch up your workouts from time to time. As Shape previously reported, regularly changing your workouts not only keeps your body guessing (and progressing), it can also help you avoid injuries. You can shake things up in your routine every day, every three days, or even every few weeks—whatever works for you. (Need help finding new routines? Here's your comprehensive guide to at-home workouts.)
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Yes, there will be days when you're productive AF while working from home. But there will also be days when even the 12-foot walk from the couch to the desk seems impossible.
On days like that, it's easy to be overwhelmed by feelings of failure. That's why it's important to set realistic expectations for yourself, especially if working from home is new to you, explains Wright.
But what do "realistic expectations" actually look like? "Create some type of accountability [that works for] your personality style," suggests McDonald.
For example, if you love lists, McDonald recommends creating a detailed, daily to-do list that includes both work tasks and designated self-care time. This creates discipline, she explains. You're showing up for the day prepared, and you know what your day is going to look like so you don't overcommit and overextend yourself.
If lists aren't your thing and you tend to be more creative, McDonald suggests thinking of a daily goal and mentally visualizing the desired outcome of that goal. (Here's how to use visualization to achieve *all* of your goals this year.)
Whatever strategy you choose, remember that you're your own worst critic, notes McDonald. So, even when you don't meet certain expectations, treat yourself with grace, especially during these uncertain times, says Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., clinical psychology professor at Columbia University.
"For the first time in any of our lifetimes, we are not in a situation that is specific to one part of the country (such as a tornado)," explains Hafeez. "Everyone is going through the same crisis at once. There is collective compassion that everyone feels as to why things are slower, and deadlines might not be met on time."
Communicate Your Needs
The ability to communicate clearly is a priceless skill—one that remote workers, especially, need to succeed. Obviously, this is true on a professional level: When you lack IRL face-time with your co-workers, it's easy to worry about what they think of your work and your role on the team. So, make it a point to regularly check in with your manager and colleagues to make sure you're all on the same page, says Wright. It's a simple way to put your mind at ease about work-related stressors. (Related: 7 Stress-Less Strategies for Dealing with Anxiety On the Job)
Communication on a personal level is equally important when working from home. If your remote setup has you feeling isolated and anxious, opening up about those feelings with your spouse, family, and/or friends can be incredibly helpful, explains Wright.
"Communication is key, period," says Wright. "Scheduling video chats or phone calls with at least one friend and/or family member per day will help you maintain other relationships while you're primarily with your partner and/or your roommates. Making sure that you have 1-2 calls, minimum, per day with other people is helpful to your mental health and overall sanity and connection."
That said, sharing intimate emotions is sometimes easier said than done. If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, you might not know where to start or what to do in order to feel better. You might not even want to open up to family or friends about these things.
If that's the case, remember that there are not only dozens of mental health hotlines you can call or text at any time but also several affordable therapy options you can try. Since you might not be able to physically go see a mental health professional during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth or telemedicine is also an option. (If you don't already have one, here's how to find the best therapist for you.)