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How to stay sane when working from home: 4 practical tips from a professional

The spread of the new COVID-19 coronavirus has some companies mandating that employees work from home. The internet has found the practice daunting, creativity-squashing, and outright overrated.

But as someone who has worked from home for over a year, the conversations on social media of people complaining about work-from-home life tell me that most people don’t understand just how adaptable they can be.

Anyone who isn’t good at something at first is more than likely to bash it. Sure, it took me a while to find a sense of well-being in working from home, but the rules I’ve set for myself throughout the past year have kept me sane. And thankfully, these rules now make the idea of going back to an office outrageous.

Make a routine

I am a freelance writer. Work comes and goes, but my schedule and routine never changes. Every day, I wake up at 6:45 in the morning and go to bed at 9:30 at night. I take walks, call my Mom, and try to avoid screens when I am not being paid to look at them. I go to spin class and yoga, ignore work emails after 5 p.m., and then there’s the biggest bonus: I don’t commute!

For those who go to an office everyday, you surely have a routine in place already. The routine may include waking up groggy-eyed, catching a train, and commuting for 45 minutes. Once you remove commuting from the equation, you will realize you have a lot more time to wake up and enjoy the morning before you clock in.

When working from home, it is important to keep a similar routine. The getting ready for work process should still apply. Wake up the same time every day. Take a shower. Drink a glass of water. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. Make coffee. Wear something comfortable, but not something you’d be embarrassed to be seen in (no dirty pajamas).

Then, take those 45 minutes you would typically use commuting to practice some self care. This could mean going for a walk, listening to focus-friendly music (I like the artist Tycho and rain sounds), meditating, planning your day, or exercising.

If you make it a point to make use of this time before work, you won’t feel rushed. And, once you start working, you will already feel like you’ve accomplished something.

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Create a dedicated workspace

Establishing a clearly defined workspace is extremely important — not only for keeping you focused and productive, but also for keeping your work and leisure spaces separate. As such, your first step should be to create a dedicated workspace. It could be a desk, coffee table, kitchen table, or counter. Bring your computer, planner, pens, and resources to this area and try not to move them elsewhere throughout the day.

If your home is small and you can’t build a walled-off home office, consider sectioning off a chunk of your living space with a rug, a divider, or other piece of furniture. (There are lots of YouTube videos dedicated to making small spaces functional.)

When you take a work-related call, make sure to take it by the desk. It is important to keep boundaries between your workspace and the spaces where you relax. For example, if you spend all day working from your couch, it will be a lot harder to relax there when you are no longer working.

And please don’t work from your bed, no matter how appealing that may be. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School found that keeping devices and work-related materials “out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.”

Take breaks to practice self care

Self care can take on a lot of interpretations when working from home. But most importantly, it means utilizing the time you have when you are off the clock or away from your computer. Breaks let you take a few moments to get your steps in and soak up the sun. Leave your phone at home and take a brisk walk outside while your lunch is heating up in the microwave, and maybe water your plants.

Employers require you to take lunches and breaks every few hours, so when working from home, be sure to police yourself. If you need to be reminded to look away from your computer, apps like Stand Up! and Calm allow you to set reminders to move around, meditate, and rest your eyes. If you have a smartphone, you can simply set a timer to go off every few hours. Don’t feel the need to bring your computer into the bathroom, either. Ignore the notifications while you’re in there: Work can wait.

Self care also means making sure to leave the house everyday (if you can), and to talk to a real person. Call your parents, spouse, or best friend, if only for 2 minutes. Talk to a colleague on the phone if you are struggling creatively. Working out problems one-on-one versus through a chat thread can do wonders. This way you won’t feel pigeon-holed into working out a conflict on your own. If you work for yourself, productivity startups like Focusmate can pair you with a buddy via webcam to keep you honest.

Make sure exercise is part of your daily routine, too. Stretching for a few minutes counts, and so does doing some hammer curls with light hand weights while you’re on a conference call.

When you sign off, sign off

Working From Home

When the end of the day rolls around and you no longer have deadlines on your docket, sign off. I mean really sign off. This means turning off notifications for any work-related apps like Slack and Gmail. If you use social media for your job, try to find alternative activities for down time. Invest in a planner if you want to keep track of your deadlines: This can help you recap the day in a more analog way that’s geared toward winding down.

Step away from your workspace for the rest of the day. If you want to use your computer for enjoyment, take it away from the area where you were working. Make it a point to be very strict about this one rule. Work can tend to follow you around when you work from home if you are not careful.

If you are serious about working from home, instead of just looking for an excuse to stay in sweatpants all day, you’ll be surprised at how wildly rewarding it can be — whether throughout your entire professional career or to simply survive for the time being.

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