A lot of us have been working from home for the past year due to COVID. Even after everyone is vaccinated and the threat has passed, it’s very likely that people will continue to work from home, at least more often.
Many people have absolutely loved working from home. Others haven’t enjoyed it quite so much.
I’ll be honest, when I first started working from home 100% of the time in March 2020, it was quite challenging.
- I felt isolated. It seemed like all my interactions with people became transactional without the informal exchanges as well.
- It was hard to create boundaries around work time.
- I forgot to take breaks and, later, felt exhausted.
- My whole body hurt because I was trying to work from either my couch or kitchen table.
After the first few weeks, I knew I needed to make some adjustments.
Even though I had no idea how long the pandemic would last, I am a
pessimist realist and assumed we could be in this situation for at least 6 months. I’m so glad I made adjustments as if we’d be in the situation for a very long time.
Part of my reasoning for making these shifts was also that I eventually planned to become a full-time entrepreneur. I decided that it might serve me well to build up solid working from home habits right away.
I’d love to share with you what I learned about working from home and how I’m applying it to my life as a new entrepreneur as well.
8 Tips to Stay Sane Working From Home
Before I jump in, I want to share a couple of important contextual things. I am part of a dual-income couple. My husband is also currently working from home full-time. We do not have kids, so the added complexity of virtual schooling and daycare closures was, fortunately, not an issue for us.
So, if you are a parent, I can’t begin to fathom the way your lives have shifted in the past year. Please take my learnings with a grain of salt. Take what resonates with you and leave the rest.
1. Set-up a Dedicated Workspace
When we started working from home in March of 2020, as shared above, I was working from my couch or the kitchen table for a few weeks. We do have a desk in our spare bedroom, but I offered that to my husband. He wanted to work there, and I preferred to be in the bright, open space of our living room.
After a couple of weeks, my whole body was sore. My whole back was sore from sitting on the couch all day. My shoulders were sore from hunching over my laptop. I felt like I had carpal tunnel coming on from using the trackpad all day instead of a mouse.
I knew I needed to set-up a dedicated workspace, even though we don’t have much extra space. We live in a small, urban condo with two bedrooms that is only about 1,000 square feet. It has more than everything we need but didn’t have an extra room for a separate office.
So, I decided to set myself up a micro-office in the middle of my living room. I got a small desk that is just large enough for my computer and an extra screen, and I ordered an office chair. Now, I have a much more ergonomic set-up.
Having this micro-office also provides me with a space to focus on work. This helps me to set better boundaries around other areas of my life and still enjoy my living room when I’m not working.
2. Create a Work Schedule and Stick to it
Without a commute, it can be challenging to disconnect from work at the end of the day. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like, “There’s so much work to do, and I don’t feel like I have an excuse to stop working.”
Even if there aren’t external expectations, it can be so easy to just stay on the computer and forget to look at the time.
Here are a few strategies that can help you stick to a standard work schedule:
- Create a morning routine. This routine should not include rolling out of bed and starting work immediately. Take a little time for yourself – whether it’s a hot shower, journaling, drinking a cup of coffee, or taking a walk outside. Doing something for myself in the morning always sets the tone for my day.
- Create a physical boundary. I talked above about having a dedicated workspace, even if it’s only a nook within another space. If you have space where you work, you’ll be more likely to be able to disconnect from work when you leave the space.
- Create a ritual. Could you do something that symbolizes the end of your workday? This could include reviewing your calendar for the next day and then closing your computer. Or, you could go outside and take a walk. You could do something simple that symbolizes the end of your workday.
- Keep sticky notes or a journal nearby. If you have an idea or realize there’s something you need to do, simply write it down on a sticky note or in a journal to focus on when you are working next. It can be so easy to say, “it’ll just take a minute,” and then it takes a half-hour. If you can write down the idea so you won’t forget, you can take care of it tomorrow.
3. Set Boundaries with your Work, Yourself, and Your family
I talk a lot about setting boundaries at work and saying “no” more often so that I can say yes to the things that are most important. Without a commute, it’s easy to assume we have more time and can say “yes” to more things. I’ve realized that I need to be as judicious with my “yes” when I am working from home as when I worked in an office.
If you want tips to help you set better boundaries at work, I’d encourage you to check-out my previous post on this topic.
Sometimes, we also need to set boundaries with ourselves. With dishes to be washed, laundry to be done, and nobody looking over our shoulder, it can be easy to get distracted. I’m all for taking breaks and using some breaks for household chores, but I find that I can fritter a good part of my day away if I’m not careful.
One strategy has been very helpful. If I need to focus on doing deep, creative work like writing, creating a presentation, or problem-solving, I often will turn my phone on airplane mode. I usually then set a timer on my phone for 35 minutes of dedicated productivity. I won’t check my phone. I won’t get up for a glass of water, a cup of tea, or a snack. I will be fully focused for 35 minutes.
35 isn’t a magic number. I experimented with what works best for me. I tried longer and shorter. I learned the 35 minutes is the minimum amount of time for me to really get into something. I either accomplish a good amount in a fully focused 35 minutes and then take a break. Or, I get into a flow state and want to keep working when the 35-minute timer is up. Depending on what I’m doing, I may do this a few times each day.
Finally, the last thing I will say is that I’ve also tried to set good boundaries with the other members of my household as well. For me, this applies to my husband. I know that when his door is closed that usually means that he’s on a call. I let him know what I’m going to be on calls. I also let him know the level of importance of the phone calls. This allows him to know if he can come out during the call to get a snack or make lunch or if he should make a plan to get what he needs before or after.
I know it can be a lot more complicated for people who have children to set boundaries with their family members. I have definitely seen successful examples though. I know of one where two spouses have split the responsibility of who will take the “lead” on watching the kids during different portions of the day. I also have a friend who successfully (most of the time) discussed with her 5-year-old to look for the indications that she was available to talk.
4. Take Breaks
After a few weeks of working from home, I realized that I was completely exhausted. When I thought about why, I realized that I wasn’t taking enough breaks to step away from my computer screen.
When I worked from an office, I’d walk through the office and down the hall to get to the bathroom and talk to colleagues along the way. I might go outside for a walk in the middle of the day with a colleague or go and grab a coffee. I definitely took more time away from my screen when I worked in an office.
So, I decided to give myself similar freedom when working from home. I didn’t need to make a cup of tea and rush back to work. I decided that I could take a minute to enjoy it. I also started taking 20-30 minute outdoor walks (with my dog) during the middle of my days.
These breaks helped a lot with the fatigue I was feeling.
5. Get Outside
Sometimes, I hear people say that they haven’t been outside in weeks. I can’t even imagine that. I feel really fortunate to have a dog that requires me to get outside for a walk almost every day. When I don’t get outside for at least a 1-mile walk, I feel stir crazy for the rest of the day. I can’t imagine what I’d feel like if I didn’t leave my house.
It’s quite cold in Boston right now, but I’ve been bundling up to get outside every day. I can’t wait until it’s nice outside again. During the spring, summer, and fall, I spent many hours working outside on my deck.
6. Be Social
One thing I missed about working in an office was connecting with my colleagues. It was honestly one of the things that kept me at my job. When we transitioned to working from home, I started to feel lonely and isolated at work.
There were a few things that I did to help with this:
- Instead of one 60-minute meeting with my boss on a weekly basis, we started connecting for two 30-minute meetings. The amount of time was the same, but I felt more connected.
- Also started setting up virtual coffee dates or lunches with some of my colleagues. I’d do this if I were in the office, so why not do this when working from home?
- Sometimes, I’d combine social and outdoor activities together. When I was taking a walk, sometimes I call a friend or family member. Sometimes I took meetings as I walked.
In addition, I also tried to be intentional about connecting with friends and family via phone, Zoom, or in-person outdoors. I found that when I spend less time interacting with people at work, I had more energy at the end of the day for other social activities.
7. Declutter Your Space
Even after doing a minimalist challenge at the end of 2019, I realized that my house was still full of so much crap. When I was at home for fewer hours, I had a lot more tolerance for clutter.
Our condo has an open concept, so our kitchen, dining room, living room, and entryway are all effectively in one large room. When I started working in my living room, I’d look up and thinking, “Why do we have so much crap everywhere? Where did it all come from?” It was making me crazy!
There are a few things that we did that have helped, but I still feel like I need to do more in this area. Here are the things that helped:
- In 2020, I continued decluttering. I have decluttered hundreds of items from my house. It’s amazing how much we’ve accumulated over the years.
- Because we have limited storage capacity in our kitchen, we had a set of freestanding shelves next to the cabinets in our kitchen. This year, we decided to install a pantry. Everything was now behind cupboard doors and out of sight.
- We bought storage cubes from Ikea that allowed us to put hats, gloves, and other winter weather gear out of sight.
Some of these bigger changes have helped significantly. And, we’re getting better and becoming more consistent about dishes, mail, and breaking down packages. It seems small, but it truly makes a big difference.
8. Be Mindfully Grateful of the Benefits of Working From Home
Over the last few years, I’ve spent time reflecting on what my ideal day looks like. If I was fully financially independent, what would I want to do every day? What would I want to do every week? What could I do that I’m not able to do now?
Here are a few things that I’ve identified as elements of my ideal day or week:
- Get enough sleep (8+ hours/night) and wake up without an alarm.
- Time for activities that support my mental and physical health (such as meditation, walking, cooking healthy food, exercise)
- Connection with family and friends on a regular basis.
- Time and energy to be creative
- Spending more time outside
- Being able to do what I want and my life maintenance activities without getting burned out
- Feeling like I’m in control of my own time
Coming up with this list allowed me to:
- Be proactive about doing more of these things more often (as working from home provided me with more time and energy for some of these things)
- Be mindfully grateful (or simply noticing) when I had an opportunity to do something that I may not have been able to do if I was in the office
I noticed that being able to sleep slightly later allowed me to get more sleep and wake up without an alarm on most days. I had more time in the morning to do things like journaling and meditating. I could throw a meal in the crockpot in the middle of the day. I could take a break from work to load the dishwasher or switch the laundry. I got to take my dog for a walk in the middle of the day. Since I was using less of my mental energy to be social at work, I had more energy for creativity and connection.
I’ve tried to cultivate an appreciation of the small, daily moments of joy and gratitude.
How I’ve Applied These Learnings as a New Entrepreneur
As someone who is new to full-time entrepreneurship in the last few months, I’ve tried to apply many of these practices. To be honest, some of them have been more successful so far than others.
I’m now spending most of my time working in my dedicated workspace. At first, it was hard for me to want to work in this space because that is where I had previously done all my work for my part-time job.
When I was working part-time, I did fewer hours of work on the business. Because of that, I could get away with doing work on the couch or at the kitchen table. After a few weeks, my body let me know that I needed to be in a dedicated workspace with a better set-up.
It became easier (and more pleasant) once I was able to turn in all my old work equipment.
As a new entrepreneur, I’m figuring out my ideal work schedule. I do have some coaching clients, groups, and workshops on evenings and weekends, so I’ve tried to make sure I don’t overdo it during the week.
Here are a few strategies that have helped me manage my week:
- I always plan one productivity-free day each week. Usually, this is a weekend day. Because I tend to run one group each weekend on either Saturday or Sunday, I do need to be intentional in advance about which day I will take completely off.
- I map out my full week on Monday mornings. I plan to do fewer projects on days where I have coaching clients or other events in the evenings. I’ve found that I typically do 2-3 hours of work in the morning and 2-3 hours of work in the afternoon with plenty of breaks for physical activity, getting outdoors, and relaxing.
- I start with a morning ritual. I usually wake up without an alarm, read one news email to learn what’s going on in the world, eat breakfast, and journal.
- I work in spurts of productivity throughout the day and make sure to take time to give my brain a break.
- I do my best to be done with work by 5 (at the latest) when Corey is done with work, so we can hang out. While I do meet with clients on evenings and weekends, I do my best to not do other work during those times.
I’m learning to set good boundaries with myself and not get distracted with shiny object syndrome (as much). I’m realistic with myself about the amount of time I want to be working and the number of things that can get done in that time.
For me, entrepreneurship is an experiment to see if I can build my ideal life long before reaching FI. Here are a few ways I’m doing that:
- I absolutely love the work that I’m doing. I get to control my own schedule and do not feel overwhelmed by the quantity of work.
- I take time during the day to exercise, take a walk, read a book, or get outside.
- My social time isn’t limited to post-work hours anymore. I’ve been able to set up virtual lunches and coffee dates during the day.
- I treat chores around the house as a brain break. When I do 5 minutes here or there, it feels a lot less burdensome.
When the weather is nice, and I can spend more time outside, I will likely condense the time that I’m working. If I take fewer breaks in the morning, then maybe I can take the entire afternoon off to go hiking or sailing. Who knows? The world is my oyster.
Small Shifts Can Dramatically Improve Our Lives
It’s amazing to me that small shifts can dramatically improve our lives. Simple things like setting up a dedicated workspace, taking short breaks, setting boundaries, and getting outside can have a tremendous impact on our mood and well-being.
Whenever we are forming new habits, it’s essential to focus on one thing at a time. We are way more likely to successfully build and stick with habits this way. Focus on one thing at a time until you master it and it becomes part of your daily life. Only then should you focus on the next thing.
What small shifts can you make to improve your work from home life? What do you want to focus on first?