If you find it hard switch off, you’re not alone.
Now that we’re working remotely, you might feel pressured to open your laptop after hours and work on your never-ending to do list.
At first, this seems like a good strategy. By working longer hours, you get more done and deliver a higher standard of work than usual. It gives you comfort and reassurance to know that your boss is impressed with you.
You might even see your dedication pay off, with some of your demotivated co-workers getting a dreaded notice letter. You vow that you’ll stay with your company and spin the hamster wheel even faster to keep your job.
But at what cost?
After a few weeks, you’re feeling tired and you space in and out in meetings. You have a hard time focussing and the quality of your work is starting to slide. All that time spent at work means you lack the energy to catch up with friends after work. Your diet suffers – and don’t even get me started on your fitness routine …
BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.
Over the past few months, I’ve developed a set of habits that help me do well at work, all while meeting personal commitments and looking after my long-term wellbeing.
Today, I’d like to share some of these tips and tricks to help you feel less stressed about your job while working remotely.
Tip 1: Maintain a routine
I like to think of a routine as a set of small habits that can make you feel more comfortable and add structure to your day. These habits help you stay on track and give you the confidence to complete everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning and responding to work emails – without causing extra stress.
Now that you don’t have to be at the office by a certain time, it can be all too easy to let your good ha bits slip. You might let the work creep up on you until you have so much going on that you start feeling overwhelmed. This is where having a clear routine can help.
It keeps you accountable when you don’t feel like working and helps you stay on top of everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning or responding to emails at work.
So how do you find a good routine – and actually stick to it?
The easiest way is to start with the little things, like when to get dressed or when to eat. Sticking to habits like having breakfast at 08:00 am every morning or taking a short break for every two hours of back-to-back meetings’ help you stay on track and reduce your stress levels.
For a start, three essential habits that I would recommend to help you build and maintain a routine are:
- Getting dressed for work
- Sticking to your working hours
- Building microsystems to manage your personal life
ESSENTIAL HABIT #1: GET DRESSED FOR WORK
While it may sound silly … you don’t want to be sitting in front of your laptop in your pyjama bottoms.
You never know when that delivery boy rings your bell, and you need to get up in the middle of the meeting to open your door. It’s downright embarrassing when your cute crush from work is in the call, you might feel just as bad showing off your nightgown to your boss.
Save yourself the stress, and GET DRESSSED before work.
This will also help with your motivation and energy levels. After all, sitting at your desk half-dressed tells your brain that you are still in ‘sleep-mode’. Even if you would much rather stay in bed, make the effort to get up five minutes earlier and put on proper clothes. That way, you’re separating work and sleep – and it might even help you reduce work-related dreams at night.
ESSENTIAL HABIT #2: STICK TO YOUR WORKING HOURS
With remote working, it’s super easy to mix work and play – but that added flexibility can become a burden when you start feeling guilty because you think you haven’t done enough.
Sticking to your regular working hours can help, but if that’s not possible – at least try to start work at the same time every day and designate a cut-off point in the evening after which you won’t work.
This gives you the peace of mind to enjoy your family life or leisure time without thinking about the things you would have wanted to finish that day.
BONUS TIP: Use a closing ritual to wind down at the end of your working day. You could finish work by crossing items off your to-do list or looking at your calendar for the next day.
BONUS TIP 2: Don’t forget to take regular breaks when working. Taking your mind off work for a bit can give you some great ideas (just like those creative sparks of genius you had when chatting to colleagues in the office).
ESSENTIAL HABIT #3: BUILD MICROSYSTEMS FOR YOUR PERSONAL LIFE
You might have the best job in the world, but if you can’t get your personal life in order you will still feel stressed.
Remote working blurs the boundaries between your personal and professional life. The truth is that poor management of your personal life will spill over into your job, and vice versa. And before you know it, things start to spiral out of control.
That’s why you need systems. Repeatable and reliable habits that keep you track in your day-to-day life. It’s about getting rid of the tiny annoyances and developing systems that keep you sane without seeing chores and tasks pile up.
You don’t need to overcomplicate this. We all have lots of good habits already, but these are the three microsystems that I find very useful:
- A basic health & fitness system – to make sure you eat the right foods, get enough sleep and exercise
- A simple household management system – so chores like emptying the dishwasher and doing laundry don’t pile up on you.
- An emotional wellbeing system – to keep in touch with friends and family, enjoy your hobbies and develop coping strategies for when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Tip 2: Own your schedule to avoid work creep
Do you plan your meetings strategically – based on the goals that your manager wants you to achieve? Or are you frantically rushing from one call to the next?
If you’re unsure … take a look at your calendar. It reveals a lot about your priorities at work. And when used wisely, the little tool can actually stop you from getting overwhelmed. Surprise, surprise!
For one, a calendar shows you exactly if your energy is going into useless meetings or spent working on the projects you care about most.
If you spend more than 40-50% of day in calls (and you’re not in managing or sales position), you’ll probably have a hard time getting tasks done.
To stay on top of projects, it can help to tell your team that you need to free up your schedule and reduce the time spent in meetings. Often, you can eliminate the worst 10-20% of time sinks by proposing email and project management tools such as Slack, Asana or Microsoft Teams as an alternative for simple tasks.
These tools (along with your calendar) are also great for remembering the little things – like sending status updates or completing a bunch of small requests. In fact, I would recommend batching small tasks and then blocking 30 minutes or so in your daily schedule to deal with them. That way, you don’t have to worry about remembering stuff which might otherwise keep you up and at night. And it affords you with uninterrupted time to work on large projects throughout the day.
If you still feel like you get too many requests from your colleagues, it might be the time to start saying no. You don’t always have to do people favours if it means that you feel overwhelmed. Instead, you want to manage people’s expectations by giving them realistic deadlines, telling them how much you have on your plate – and when you expect to have a less busy period.
Another common thing that stresses people out when working from home is that they don’t know how to keep on top of a large chain of emails. But while you’re aiming for inbox zero, you can set up three systems to reduce your email anxiety:
- Schedule some designated time when you won’t respond to any emails – and let your manager know. (If needed, tell them that they can reach you via phone in a true emergency.)
- Hold weekly office hours, where people can drop in with more complex requests. This tip was recommended to me by Cal Newport.
- Set up Outlook to automatically sort your emails. That way, you can find all emails from certain people all in one folder and won’t have to scroll through your inbox to find all messages about that specific topic.
Tip 3: Set clear priorities for yourself
Do you ever face piles and piles of work, but don’t know where start?
Apart from setting clear boundaries so your work doesn’t creep up on you, I recommend that you set clear priorities. Separate the wheat from the chaff, and focus on the tasks that will give you and your manager disproportionate returns.
You might ask: but if I face an endless stream of work, how I you know what to focus on RIGHT NOW?
Well, the secret is to figure out which tasks are both urgent and important. Deal with these right away.
After that, you want to focus on your long-term commitments – projects that can make a big impact but demand large chunks of time to get done. This includes things like setting up a new sales funnel, pitching a proposal to your manager or working on your company’s brand strategy.
I know that sometimes it’s hard to focus on the right things from the get-go. So, what I like to do to help with planning is to use a priority matrix. This is a neat little chart that can help you categorise tasks based on their importance and urgency.
Once you’ve categorised your tasks, start with those that are both urgent and important. And If you have a lot of small tasks, do the ones with the earlier due dates first.
Also, what you might notice if you plan your day like this, is that the not-so-important tasks often disappear. Some mundane tasks resolve simply disappear if you wait long enough, and other times a colleague with different priorities might already make a head start on the ground work.
Tip 4: Store negative thoughts in a vault
But even with all this planning, you might feel like things sometimes get too much. Your mind is racing and you have a hard time switching off after work.
Then, I recommend you take a few deep breaths. Imagine how you move a stream of nervous thoughts into a big bank vault. You put stream after stream of negative thoughts in this vault. And when they are all there, you firmly shut the door behind you, and turn the lock.
When these thoughts come back to you at an inconvenient time, vow to deal with them later (and actually set aside a time to think about what worries you and how you could solve it).
For example, the other day I worried whether I could publish this blog post on time, as I had a lot of work and university commitments this week. In my mind, I was nervously jumping from one task to the next, thinking that there was no way to complete them all.
But then, I imagined how all these anxious thoughts were seeping out of my body into the earth. And so, I got less caught up in my fears and made some good progress the tasks I’d set myself.
HINT: If you use this strategy, you need to take time to revisit your worries – or else any suppressed feelings will come back at you with full force.
Personally, I take stock of my anxieties at least once a week. I allow myself to feel my deepest fears in an attempt to overcome them.
But revisiting your vault is so much more than that … it also helps you let go of things you can’t control, and focus on the positive chances you can make to improve your life.
Suppose you hated working from home because you missed colleagues. While realistically you might not head back to the office anytime soon, you could try to meet up after work for chat or plan a catchup call during the day to replace the conversations by the water cooler.
And lastly, trust yourself. You will make the right decisions. Even if things seem to miserably wrong, they happen for a reason – and every failure is a chance to grow.