A couple of months ago, many people were thrust into the position of having to work from home for the first time, or for the first sustained period, in their career. It can be a major change for many people, and here’s some advice for getting started with working from home.
After a while, however, the newness of the change starts to wear off, and that’s when burnout can set in. You start feeling like there’s no boundary between life and work. You’ve overexerted yourself to prove that this can work, and now you feel like a walking zombie. You feel anxious. You can’t sleep. You’re exhausted. You don’t have a good sense as to what you should be focusing on. You feel like you’re in a fog. You mostly just want to spend all day vegging out, but the work keeps coming at you.
What do you do when you’re on the edge (or over the line) of work at home burnout?
Trust me, I’ve been there. I spent most of a year feeling exactly this way, after burning the candle at both ends for a little too long while working from home.
Six strategies to combat WFH fatigue
1. Get regular exercise.
If you worked outside the home before this and suddenly transitioned to working from home, chances are you’re not moving around nearly as much as you used to. You’re not going out and driving to work. You’re not walking into your office, milling around the water cooler, going somewhere for lunch, walking to meetings, walking back out at the end of the day,and so on. If you went to a gym, you’re not doing that, either, and your evenings probably involve less moving around, too.
You’ve got to find a way to replace that. The most effective way to do it is to start going on a daily walk. You can do this while listening to music or to a podcast, or simply enjoy the sounds of the neighborhood. Go at your own pace, but make sure that your total walking time over the course of a day is at least 45 minutes. You can break that up as you like, of course.
You can also try exercising from home. Here’s a great beginner’s guide to home exercise with no equipment (or stuff you probably already have around the house).
2. Determine your productivity cycles
You may already know this about yourself, but if you don’t, spend some time honing in on what parts of the day you’re at your most effective and which parts you’re not. For example, I’m definitely most effective during the morning hours in terms of focused work, peaking about four hours after I wake up and then gradually declining after that. If I do focused work, I want to start within an hour or two of waking and make that subsequent block of hours my focused work period of the day.
In other words, if you know when you’re most alert and focused, try to center your work that requires the most focus around that time.
If you don’t know what part of the day sees you at your most alert, start keeping track of it. Try working during different parts of the day and keep notes as to which work sessions seem to be the most effective for you. Patterns will start to emerge, and when they do, utilize them in deciding when to do different kinds of work — and when to not work at all.
3. Block off time for work — and time for not working.
There should be a consistent period during your day where you are focused primarily on work tasks, and the other periods should be focused on other things.
During those working periods, do everything that you can to focus on work. Turn off your phone notifications that aren’t work-related or, if you can, put your phone somewhere else entirely. Let others living in your home know that you’re going to work and ask to not be disturbed for a while. If you can, go to a space that has clear separation from the rest of your living space.
When you’re not working, don’t work. Let yourself get engaged in other things. Turn off phone notifications related to work or, if you can, put your phone somewhere else entirely.
For me, I find it really effective to time-block my days. I simply decide, at the start of the day, which hours of the day I’m going to use for various things, and during those blocks, that’s what I do. I’ll define five or six hours for focused work, a few more for lighter work, and other time blocks for other things I want to do — family time, household chores, hobby time and exercising.
4. Relax with meaningful leisure, not endless Netflix or social media.
It is really easy to fall into a routine of watching a lot of television each day or constantly browsing social media, letting it fill your spare hours like water filling a tub. The thing is, it’s easy to start feeling burnt out if passive entertainment fills a large portion of each day.
Dial back on your time spent watching television or browsing social media. Save that for a block of time each day, then avoid it outside of that block. Turn off social media notifications and badges on your phone. Find other things to do. There are tons of hobbies that you can delve into, even if you’re stuck at home.
5. Find a healthy way to vent your frustrations.
This goes hand in hand with the time blocking and hobby advice above. Work is challenging and frustrating at times, and people working at home — particularly those working at home during a stay at home order — may be lacking in ways to deal with those feelings in a healthy manner. You have to find a good outlet for those frustrations.
I find it in gaming, exercise and hiking, all of which I can do during this stay at home order. I can sometimes channel it into housework, usually done at a vigorous pace such that it’s basically exercising.
Find something that makes the frustration you’re feeling melt away and make that a regular part of your life. You are not looking for something that dulls it for a while, which is the effect that passive entertainment consumption often has. You want to get rid of it. That doesn’t mean it won’t recur during a later work session – it probably will. However, if you don’t find ways to deal with those feelings, they will build up and cause enormous psychological, social, and physical problems.
6. Figure out what’s really a priority with your work and focus on that.
Over time, a lot of jobs will fill up with a collection of important and unimportant tasks, all of which seem urgent. The real challenge that most of us have is figuring out how to identify which tasks are actually important and which ones aren’t so that you can focus on getting the important ones done first and with a high level of quality and then mopping up the unimportant ones if there’s time and you still have anything left in the tank.
Distinguishing between the important and unimportant is hard enough in an office setting, but it becomes even harder when a person is working from home without the ability to just peek over a cubicle or around a corner and ask someone.
My suggestion is to make a big list of all of the tasks on your plate and then prioritize them. Figure out which ones are truly important on your own, then focus on getting those done well. If you’re having trouble distinguishing some of the lower priority tasks from each other, ask for guidance, whether from supervisors or from coworkers that you trust. Minimize your investment of time and energy on unimportant tasks — just do them as quickly as possible or even skip some of them — and save that time and energy for the important tasks.
This is an art that varies a lot from job to job, and figuring out how to do it is essential to effectively working at home.
The take-home message is this: working from home for extended periods can lead to burnout, and if you don’t take steps to deal with that burnout, your quality of life will suffer greatly. Work will spill into the rest of your life, your work performance will suffer, you’ll grow more and more irritable, and eventually it will start having real negative impacts on your career and your life.
Nip those effects in the bud, right now. If you’re feeling some work from home burnout, try some of these approaches. They helped me through some challenging adjustments to working from home.