Staying Sane While Working From Home

Over the next few weeks and months, a huge portion of corporate America is going to get their first extended taste of the beauties and challenges that come with a full-time, work from home (WFH) lifestyle.

Two years ago, I ventured into the self-employed life when I founded OutSail. And since I put all of my savings into the business, I had little spare money for anything beyond the essentials. I cancelled my gym membership, avoided coffee shops and happy hours, and limited my travel.

I didn't know it then, but I was practicing self-quarantining.

This experience gave me a few lessons that might be instructive to those who are adjusting to the WFH lifestyle for the first time. My biggest takeaway for all is:

Working from home is not so much a technical challenge, as it is a mental and physical challenge.

Having a quiet space, with a good Internet connection and a comfortable chair are all important, but easily solvable challenges. The harder challenge is what to do with your newly discovered time, ambiguity, independence and solitude.

Here are a few things to know and practice as you get started:

You're going to have more time than you ever realized

Until I started working from home, I never realized just how much of the standard American work day isn't spent directly on work.

Many people have hour long commutes and spend countless intermittent minutes chatting with a neighbor, refilling at the coffee machine, extending a lunch break, walking to and from meetings, getting advice from a mentor and more.

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I'm not saying those activities are wasted, especially the companionship and collaboration that comes from being around peers. But now that you're working from home, the first thing you'll likely notice is just how much you can condense your actual work time.

"Whoa! How have I already finished all of my to-do's? It's only 11:30am."

This thought will be a very common experience on the first day of WFH, and it can be a triumphant feeling, especially early on; but it can also be a terrifying one.

The next question is usually, "Well what do I do now?" There can be an innate internal pressure to keep pushing forward, "Well, I need to keep working. I usually work right up to 5:00pm, so why should anything change now?"

If you can take advantage of this extra time to move projects forward, get ahead of next quarter, do some strategic planning or get yourself organized - then all the power to you.

But also, if you've completed your duties for the day early, don't be ashamed that it didn't take you until 5:00pm; and try not to guilt yourself into sitting at the computer just because it's what you've always done.

Remember: You've done your job, just as you always have. It just looks differently on the clock when much of the filler is removed.

Keep some things the same, but don't be afraid to make big routine changes

In the early days of WFH, you will constantly compare your new routines to your office routines. This can have both positive and negative impacts on your ability to effectively adjust.

Early on, you'll want to keep a lot of routines the same. We're all very routine-oriented and too much change to our routine at once will cause chaos and anxiety.

Whatever your morning routine was before, try to stick with it: get up in the morning, shower, put on some work clothes, have your coffee and breakfast, then get started.

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But also, keep an eye out for routines that were merely habits and not adding much to your day. Here's an example of what I mean:

Like most Americans, I experience a crash in the post-lunch early afternoon time frame. In an office setting, I would sit in front of my monitor from 1-3pm not getting a ton done - answering some emails but also surfing websites and reading articles.

Once I started WFH, I decided to make that time my gym time. If I'm not going to be mentally productive in that window, then I might as well be physically active.

Since that change, I'm actually more productive in the later afternoon, I feel less burnt out because I'm not forcing myself to work when the circuits aren't firing, and I'm no longer squeezing the gym in after work and shortchanging my time with loved ones.

Remember: Consistency early on will help you manage the changes. However, not all office routines are value-add's. See if there are changes you can make that are more conducive to your long-term well being.

Keeping work spaces and home spaces separated is a challenge

The rooms in our house are not merely spaces with floors and ceilings, but they all have their own uses which sends subtle signals to our brain about what we should be doing in these spaces.

Now that you're WFH, those signals can easily get confused and you'll want to be diligent about making sure you're creating clear boundaries in your own mind.

If you're lucky enough to have a spare room in your house that can be converted into an office, absolutely take the time to set your workstation up in there.

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There will be some inclinations to move your workstation around throughout the day. You'll notice some nice spring sunshine and want to finish writing emails from the back porch. I'm not saying don't take advantage of your new flexibility, but also be cautious about the confusion you might create for yourself and others in your house.

Once you start moving your workstation around, you blur the lines between what are work spaces and what are living spaces.

This might be just what you wanted while writing the emails in the afternoon, but when you're having dinner on your back porch that evening, you'll be more inclined to think about work there too.

Remember: There will be a temptation to mix your work spaces and your living spaces, but this can cause confusion in your brain. Try to separate those spaces, if you can.

Create activities that signal the work day is starting and ending

Aside from designating specific spaces for work, it can also be helpful to create some activities that signal to your brain when work starts and when work ends.

You no longer have the physical activity of walking through the office doors to tell your brain that work is starting and ending, so it's important to create new signposts in your head.

Without these signals, it's very easy to fall into an always-on, never-present mode, which can layer on unnecessary stress and anxiety.

For me, I had to make a rule that I won't look at email or open my computer until I've showered, gotten dressed, read the news and eaten breakfast. Once the dishes go in the dishwasher, that's my signal that work is starting.

In the afternoon, I put my computer in my backpack, zip it up and put it under my desk. I'm not allowed to touch it again until tomorrow. Typically, I'll also immediately shift into a non-work activity, like reading a book or prepping dinner, so my brain knows that work is over.

Remember: Try to give your brain signals that work is starting and work is ending so you can avoid feeling like work has become 24/7.

Practice patience with your new "office mates"

Whether you live with roommates, a spouse or children, keep in mind that they are adjusting to your new routines too.

One important thing to remember is that the people around you can't tell when you're doing passive, mindless work and when you're doing thoughtful, engaged work.

If you do the tedious, passive work on the couch while having easy conversation with them, then they won't know not to interrupt at a later point when you might be doing the strenuous and challenging work.

The clearer you can be with boundaries early on, the easier and more enjoyable this process will be.

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With so much changing in your life and in the world, you're going to want to keep your productivity up and distractions to a minimum. Consistency will feel like comfort.

But you're probably also a pretty decent person, and your loved ones are going to be excited that they have more time with you. Try not to resent them for that!

It's okay if a child or spouse unknowingly interrupts your meeting to ask you a question. Don't get embarrassed, but just kindly explain to your new "office mates" that you're in a meeting. I promise the rest of us on the call won't judge you, we're all going through the same thing!

Remember: This experience is new for the people around you too. Try to make your boundaries clear and be patient as your "office mates" are learning these new rules.

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