While working remotely and e-learning were already trends before the COVID-19 pandemic, shelter in place orders mean that a lot more of us are now using home offices or virtual classrooms.
This sudden shift into a new way of working can create a number of challenges, both practical and psychological. Maybe your home is chaotic with multiple family members trying to work from home and kids who are e-learning and needing help with assignments. At the same time, you may actually feel more isolated because you are not physically working alongside your peers. It may be difficult to disconnect from work without that physical separation of your personal and professional or academic spaces. And whatever burdens or worries you have about the pandemic may make it hard to completely focus on work.
So in addition to setting up the necessary technology and carving out a functional workspace, Rush clinical psychologist Sheila Dowd, PhD, recommends the following strategies to help you maintain your well-being while working or learning from home.
1. Stick to your routine.
With offices and schools closed and activities cancelled, there is likely less structure to your days. As a result, time may feel distorted, and you may quickly get in the habit of working or studying at odd hours, eating meals at unusual times and going to bed later.
“Since kindergarten, we’ve been socialized to have a routine. Our bodies and brains like predictability; it helps us feel more in control,” Dowd explains. “How do you create a sense of control when there’s so much uncertainty? Keep yourself on a routine.”
As much as possible, do the things you would normally do to prepare for work or class: set your alarm for the same time you usually wake up, take a shower, brush your teeth, shave, eat breakfast, get dressed. You don’t have to wear a suit or heels, but getting out of the clothes you sleep in and putting on a fresh outfit will help you mentally transition into work or school mode.
2. Use your commute time for self-care.
Since you don’t have to travel back and forth to work, try dedicating that time — whether it’s 20 minutes or two hours — for self-care.
Get some exercise, take up a hobby you’ve always wanted to try, start a book you’ve been wanting to read but haven’t had time, listen to a podcast, start journaling. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are able to immerse yourself in it.
“Two basic human needs are accomplishment and joy,” Dowd says. “Completing the tasks in your routine will give you that sense of accomplishment; you will experience joy by adding a new fun, relaxing or exciting activity into your routine. Imagine how refreshed you’ll feel going for a leisurely walk outside instead of sitting in traffic.”
3. Create a mental work or study zone.
If you live with others, carving out both space and time to focus may prove difficult. When dealing with teens and adults, it can help to establish expectations during work or school hours.
If you have a separate room where you can close the door to get privacy, put up a sign that defines your work hours and requests that you not be disturbed during those hours when the door is closed. An open door can mean that you are OK with interruptions (it’s also reasonable, though, to establish boundaries around the types of interruptions are acceptable to protect your workspace).
If you don’t have a room of your own, Dowd suggests creating a mental work or study zone.
“Putting on headphones can be a great way to create that sense of separation and expectation of privacy,” she says. “You may not be able to physically distance yourself, but you are still able to convey to your family that you are in your work zone. When you take the headphones off, that’s when you are ready to disconnect from work and engage with others.”
Of course, these strategies are not really feasible if you have younger kids who are now e-learning and need help with their schoolwork. In an upcoming story, we will offer advice on how to manage being your kids’ homeschooling teacher while working a full-time job remotely.
4. Schedule “worry time.”
If stress or anxiety are keeping you from focusing on your work, schedule “worry time” into your daily routine. And find a place for your worry time that is distinct from where you work or study.
“Decide that you’re only going to think about your problems from 5 to 5:30,” Dowd says. “If that issue pops into your head any other time during the day, put a pin in it: Tell yourself you are not going to think about it until 5:00 because right now you need to focus on work or school.”
Use your worry time to figure out how to address the problem, rather than dwelling on the problem itself. “Write down those next steps, because if you have tangible next steps, you have that sense of control, which can help you worry less,” Dowd says.
How do you create a sense of control when there’s so much uncertainty? Keep yourself on a routine.
4. Go “out” for lunch.
You may not be able to dine at your favorite restaurant or gather with others in the break room, but it’s important to physically step away from your workspace for a midday meal — even if you literally just move from one side of the dining room table to another.
And now that you’re working in close proximity to your kitchen, instead of grabbing a quick sandwich or fast food as you might do at the office or school, take a little time to make fresh, tasty and healthy lunches. You can even use your morning “commute” time to prep the ingredients for easier assembly at lunchtime.
If you miss that sense of community, set up virtual lunch dates with your work friends using Google hangout or Zoom. Socializing with the people you are used to lunching with on workdays can help add a touch of normalcy and enjoyment to your day.
5. Don’t bring work “home.”
When it’s quitting time, leave your work in your workspace and resolve not to think about it until the next day. Allow yourself to decompress and enjoy your time off, as you would normally do if you went to the office or school.
“Just as you schedule worry time so personal issues don’t affect your work, don’t let work-related issues creep into your personal time unless they truly are emergencies that can’t wait until the next day,” Dowd says. “It’s all about defining your work and personal spaces. You have your work space, your eating space, your sleep space, your TV space, etc. When you are in each area, do only the things associated with each area so it feels more like a routine.”
6. Straighten up after work.
When you are home all day, every day, it doesn’t take long for your home to get dirty and cluttered. And research has shown that a messy living space can have a negative effect on your mental health, including contributing to depression and anxiety.
Straightening up at the end of each day can help you feel more organized and less chaotic. “It can actually be relaxing to tidy up and put things back in place,” Dowd says. “You can just do one quick sweep and make sure there isn’t garbage lying around, or huge stacks of books or papers.”
If you live with others, try making daily clean-ups part of the household routine: “Set the expectation that at 5:00, everyone stops what they’re doing and takes 15 or 20 minutes to tidy their respective areas. You can even make a game and offer a prize to the person whose space is the neatest or who finishes putting their things away the fastest — that’s a nice way to get kids to participate wholeheartedly.”
Adjusting to the new normal
One thing to keep in mind as you continue to navigate the challenges of working or learning remotely: Everyone will experience the shift to remote work or learning differently, and things may not always go smoothly. You may have moments or days where you feel frustrated, anxious or unmotivated.
“This is a game-changer for all of us. Our sense of normalcy and control has been disrupted, so it’s understandable that we’re all experiencing a lot of different emotions. Allow yourself to feel those emotions. Just make sure you identify effective ways to manage them (e.g., take a walk, meditate, journal or listen to soothing music) so they don’t overwhelm you.” Dowd says. “The good news is that we are all resilient and adaptable by nature, and even those who are struggling now will find ways to thrive within whatever the new normal turns out to be.”