Striking a better work-life balance should be easier when working from home, right?
In theory, yes. Working from home usually means we have more time to do the things we enjoy (primarily because we save time in commuting), and we are often closer to the family and friends with whom we like to do those things.
But an unfortunate irony experienced by many people during the recent shift towards remote work is that striking the proper work-life balance can be a lot more difficult at home.
Working remotely, it is easier for our work to invade our home life and erase any clear distinction between the two. Since we don’t have a bus or train journey keeping our work separated from the rest of our lives, we have to be vigilant about enforcing the separation ourselves.
In this article, we are going to provide some practical advice about how to achieve this. We will show you how managing your work-life balance will not only help you make the most of your personal time but also let you achieve higher levels of wellness at work.
In talking about achieving a work-life balance, it is sometimes easy for us to lose sight of our goal. We often think, incorrectly, that a true work-life balance is a mythical place of calm waters and lightly chirping birds—a place of abject contentedness. Paradoxically, this kind of wishful thinking can be harmful because it can make the prospect of a true work-life balance seem out of reach.
While a good work-life balance certainly is a foundation for mental and physical wellbeing, we have to be realistic about what it looks and feels like in practice. We also have to think realistically about the steps we need to take to reach it. There’s no magic here. Achieving a work-life balance can even be a bit of a grind—at least in the beginning before we’ve adapted to the change.
With this in mind, here are some real steps you can take to slowly build towards a more balanced lifestyle when working from home.
The first step seems pretty simple, right? But what we mean when we say ‘get out of bed’ is ‘get out of bed before you do anything else!’
It’s been reported that 8.8% of Americans working from home since the pandemic began have done all or a majority of their work in bed. For many people living in shared accommodation with no access to a desk in the home, this might be a necessity. For everyone else, this is not a good idea.
But even though most people aren’t working in bed all day, many are still allowing work to creep into their place of rest. The most common way that this happens is that people check their emails on their phones before they get up each day.
This is a very bad way to start the day because you are already erasing whatever faint line of division there might have been between your work life and your home life. You immediately invite the stress and anxiety of your job into your rest time.
But that’s not the end of the trouble. Sleep doctors tell us that we should never do any kind of work from bed because doing so can train the brain to be alert when we are there. The upshot is that, when we do try and get to sleep, our mind finds it difficult to switch gears.
Get out of bed.
If you can avoid checking your emails from in bed, you should also avoid checking them for a while longer. That first hour after you wake up is absolutely critical for setting the tone for the rest of your day. So, you want to try to keep it positive and stress-free with a purpose-built morning ritual.
The morning ritual, by the way, should happen at the same time each day. You want to be sleeping to a regular schedule so that your body clock is properly set. This will ensure that your sleep is more restful, giving you more energy and a better mood for the day ahead.
Now, the rest of the morning ritual is a personal choice. Here is a list of elements you might want to consider incorporating:
You might be tempted to give yourself a little reward for getting out of bed (you achiever, you) by watching a quick bit of Netflix or playing something on a gaming console. But you should be avoiding this at all costs. You are going to be spending the whole day in front of a screen (most likely), so it’s critical that you enforce that mental separation from the get-go.
Also, by slumping down on the sofa, you are getting your mind and body set for a low-mood, low-energy kind of day. These activities really only ‘fill in’ time, as opposed to getting you excited or genuinely interested. So, instead of giving yourself the easy reward of an episode of Friends or Game of Thrones, use your morning ritual to do something that actually activates your mind or body.
The biggest reason why working from home unsettles the work-life balance is that you are always ‘at work’, even when you’re not working. Just in the same way that you want to sanitise your bed of the stress that comes from checking your email, you want to try and separate the general stress of work from the comfort of your home.
Now, for many people, this kind of separation is very difficult because there just isn’t the space to set up a home office in a spare room. But even if you aren’t able to keep a separate office, you should try and keep as many things separate as possible. That might mean, for example, not touching your laptop except during work hours, designating one kitchen chair as your ‘work chair’, or packing all your work material out of sight on the weekends.
In short, you need to do as much as possible to ensure that you continue to associate the physical space of your home with calm and enjoyment.
Just as you want to avoid work creeping into the space of your home life, you also want to avoid it creeping into your home time. We already mentioned that you want to try to avoid checking emails until after you’ve had breakfast and the workday has actually started. But you also want to be avoiding doing that at any time after the workday has finished, as well as during any breaks.
In order to keep this temporal separation in place, you need to have very clear ideas about when you’re on the company clock and when you’re not. So, you want to make sure that your day is clearly organised around break times, and also that you have a hard clock-off time.
If you don’t have these clear boundaries in place, it can become easy for work to start to invade your home life. Even just glancing over a client document after dinner can have the effect of setting your brain in motion and disturbing those hours in which you should be enjoying yourself.
So, step one is to create time schedules. Step two is to stick to them like they’re iron law.
An unfortunate quirk of the Covid-19 shift to working from home is that many people are exercising less. You would think that exercising would be much easier when working from home. This really is true.
But it’s also true that when you work from home you spend a lot less time each day being up on your feet. When you go to the office, you naturally spend a lot more time walking—to and from the bus, down into the street for a coffee, etc., etc.
So, with your base level of activity being so low, it’s essential that you make time each day to get at least a little bit of exercise. There’s a reasonable amount of evidence out there suggesting that the morning is the best time to exercise. Doing so can keep your anxiety levels low throughout the day, give you more energy, and allow you to sleep better at night time. But it’s obviously a personal thing and what works for you is what works for you.
The important thing is to plan your exercise in advance. You don’t want to be getting to 6 in the evening and telling yourself it’s been a long day or it’s raining outside. These kinds of excuses become less persuasive when you’ve got your mind and body into the habit of a strict schedule.
Of course, when we say ‘strict’, we don’t mean that you are pumping big iron or getting set for a marathon. We simply mean that you set yourself a time to work out and you stick to it.
To help make your schedule stick, it’s a good idea to add some variety to your exercise program. Don’t slap the pavement five days a week. Instead, organise to play tennis with a friend one day, go to a yoga class, or ride a bike.
Ultimately, the key is structure. By having a clear idea in your head of what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, it’s much easier to enforce a separation between work and the rest of your life at moments of weakness.
While you want to be allocating time to do exercise each day, you don’t want this to be your only break from your screen. There are a few reasons for this.
Evidence has shown that musculoskeletal issues have risen dramatically since people have shifted to working remotely from home, and the consumption of painkillers is peaking too. A lot of this has to do with the fact that people are using beds, sofas, and kitchen chairs to do their work, rather than proper ergonomic furniture.
But it also has to do with the fact that working from home can promote a more sedentary workday. Working in your bedroom or kitchen you can practically touch everything you might need from where you are sitting. So, essential for our physical health is getting up regularly—preferably every thirty minutes (even if it’s just for a few seconds).
Getting out of your chair is also critical for striking a healthy work-life balance. By getting out of your chair and going and doing something else, you are forcing your brain to think about something other than the stress of work. Playing with your dog for a few minutes or jogging once around the block can ensure that you stop the stress of your work from creeping up and consuming the emotional space of your home.
When it is time to shut the laptop, one thing that you really should be factored into your evening schedule is time with friends and family. Planning to meet up with your favourite people is a sure-fire way to set some emotional boundaries between your work and your life.
Humans are social creatures, which is a phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit. But when it comes to mental (and even physical) wellbeing, it holds some very real implications. All of the evidence suggests that social interaction is absolutely critical for our mental health.
Even small doses of socialisation can help to release endorphins in the brain, which make us feel happy and less stressed. In fact, a short conversation with a cashier at the supermarket is powerful enough to lift our mood for hours—even if we aren’t really aware of it.
But the biggest benefits of socialisation come when we are interacting with strong, well-established social networks. So, get onto your pals at the start of the week and make sure that you’ve got something locked in.
So, what have we got so far? A bit of sport, a bit of social interaction, and a whole lot of ways to stop work from overtaking our home.
That doesn’t leave us with a whole lot of time up our sleeves—it might just be an hour or half an hour between dinner and lights out. But whatever time you have left for your leisure, it’s really important that you fill it with activities that are genuinely rewarding. This might be anything from reading a book to learning a new magic trick.
The reason you want to pursue these kinds of activities is that they are the ones that are most likely to lift your mood even when you’re not doing them. On the other hand, sinking into the sofa and watching your precious leisure hours evaporate in an instant is an activity that will leave you feeling empty, frustrated, and regretful.
Of course, we have all experienced that feeling of wanting to do something productive and rewarding with our leisure time, only to somehow fail at ever even starting. Often, a replay of a Love Island episode coming on the television is enough to make us forget all of our plans. Likewise, the feeling of being tired after a long workday can prove to be justification enough to put any plan off until tomorrow.
Although it might sound contradictory, we really need to be hard on ourselves about doing the things we enjoy. If we aren’t, our days can very quickly start to feel empty, and all that’s left is work.
So, we’ve now covered the main steps to take in striking that work-life balance when working from home. Hopefully, through all of them, a discernable link has emerged.
This link is, of course, structure.
Whether you are creating physical distance between your work and home life, setting yourself a clock-off time, or scheduling your sport and social activities, the structure is everything. We might have grand ambitions on a Sunday night to get to the other end of the coming week having run fifty kilometres, read two books, caught up with a long-lost friend, and finished a scaled model of the Death Star, but all of these aspirations are likely to come to naught unless we have plans in place to achieve them.
When we have a structured plan for the day, week, or month in place, it’s harder to deviate. When we don’t have a clear structure in place, that’s when work can creep in on our time and psychological state. Before you know it, two weeks have gone by without any exercise, we’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel of what’s even half-watchable on Netflix, and we’re three hours deep into a session of watching dogs play dead when their owners say ‘bang’.
To stop things from getting out of control, we need a structure to fall back on.