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How to avoid burning out when working from home

I’m an advocate for remote work. For the better part of my life, I have worked from home as a freelance technical writer. Granted, it was never fully remote like the last five years since joining Automattic, where everyone works from wherever they like, but I’ve always hated regularly going to an office. And I’ve been preaching that “every company that can let employees work from home should allow employees to work from home” ever since.

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However, working from home does not feel as stressful, suffocating, exhausting, and uncertain as it does today to the hundreds if not thousands of people who are forced to work from home due to the ongoing pandemic. I stress this again; this is not how regular work-from-home feels. I consider myself a veteran at working from home, and even I am not at my best since the self-isolation began.

Working from home does not feel as stressful, suffocating, exhausting, and uncertain as it does today to the hundreds if not thousands of people who are forced to work from home due to the ongoing pandemic.

It is important to understand that what you’re going through right now is a complex set of emotions and mental pressure influenced by everything that’s happening from your immediate social circle to the rest of the world. When all of this is over, hopefully soon, regular life will resume, and work from home will return to being a chilled, calm, and relaxing experience as it always has been.

But we don’t know how long we’ll have to work from home. We might be in it for the long haul. So, while I recognize the difficulty involved with being productive while surrounded by all members of your family (and being in a pandemic), here are some practical tips from my years of experience that helped me avoid burning out when working from home and staying productive.

Create a routine and stick by it

Nothing is worse than feeling tired at the end of a day and realizing that not all of your productive hours were spent on actual work that needed to be done.

It is ideal to set a routine of when you start working and when you finish it. Assuming that your workplace is asking that you work 9 to 5 (or a different combination of hours) while at home, you should try your best to stick to that routine and not deviate too much from it just because you are at home and there’s no one to look over your shoulder.

It’s important to understand that unless you have precise work timing, you will end up feeling like you’re working round the clock. Take it from someone who has never been able to set up a routine and follow it strictly.

If you feel like your work has increased tenfold since you began working from home, ask yourself, has the actual workload increased, or are you finding yourself at work longer than you should?

If the company you work for has increased workload, that’s a different case. But chances are, you’re just working more time for the same or similar amount of work.

See, the problem here is that because you’re staying at home, you begin to procrastinate a lot more than usual. (Yes, I know you “usually” procrastinate, Who doesn’t!) You may lose focus from your work as other household things come up. You may even be looking at the computer screen and be idle because you don’t have a ‘time limit’ when you will leave the office. So you may think to yourself, “I’ll just work on this bit before bed.”

That there is the mistake. Unless you’re dividing your time in a way that puts some working hours before bed, you really shouldn’t put something off for later just because you are at home.

Granted, this depends partly on what kind of job you do. If you’re someone like a system administrator who may be needed at emergencies, that’s a different case. But I’m referring to most jobs that don’t necessarily require you to be present round the clock.

The bottom line of this is that you should have mental self-discipline as to when you start working and when you finish it. Having this discipline helps ensure that your working hours don’t spill over to your free time.

Have a dedicated place to work

If space is not an issue, have a dedicated working space and announce to your family members that you’re at the office so they must not disturb you unless necessary.

If you can’t have a separate room from where to work (this can be your bedroom too, just make sure you have a proper desk), you can use a pair of good headphones to isolate yourself from your surroundings.

There are many different background noises (rains, restaurants, sea waves, tropical forests; you name it) on YouTube that you can play while you focus on work. Remember to turn those off before your Zoom call, though!

Not having a dedicated space where you can focus on work means you may struggle to focus, and it may take you longer to get work done. It’s an easy way to burnout since you won’t be using the time effectively.

Minimize all digital distractions

Occasionally checking the social media is fine, but you may want to avoid getting into an argument about why that new Netflix movie is terrible while you’re supposed to be working.

A few people told me that their social media usage increased a lot, and that’s hurting their productivity. That’s expected. But it’s not too difficult to avoid getting distracted when you’re working. There are browser extensions that you can use to force yourself out of social media when you work.

The result? You can get the work done in time and have a raging discussion about your new not-so-favorite movie later. Chances are, you’ll realize that it’s not the best use of your time to have that discussion at all!

On the upside, your work didn’t have to suffer because you got that done when you still had the energy!

Take frequent breaks

I get up from my desk at the top of every hour, even if just for 2/3 minutes.

The idea is not to mimic your office experience, where you may have gotten up more than you really needed 😉 but taking frequent breaks means you are not getting bored or tired sitting down at your computer for a prolonged period.

It also has health benefits. If you get up, pace for a bit, stretch and then get back to your chair, you will instantly feel recharged. It works for me. Why not give it a try and see if you feel the same?

Have a list of things to do

Having a list of tasks that you want to complete on a day makes it easier to keep track of where you are on your working day. It takes the “list of things to do” off of your mind and puts them somewhere you can see. That means less energy trying to remember all the things you’re supposed to complete and more towards actually achieving them.

It also means less chance of burning out since you’re taking pressure off of your mind!

I recommend writing that list of tasks either on a physical notepad or a note-taking application like Simplenote*. The idea is to get them off your mind, so you don’t have to remember to do things.

Some people suggest writing this list of tasks the night before, but you choose whatever works best for you. As long as you have a list, it will make you more productive, even if only slightly so.

Of course, it depends on the type of work that you do, so you may not always know what you’ll be working until you start working on it. But even then, see if there are things that you know you will need to do and write them down.

Relax when you’re supposed to be relaxing

How we spend our “off” time has a significant impact on how our physical and mental state is when we’re “on” the job.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that if I kept poking at work stuff long after my working hours are over, I’m more fatigued and burn out quickly when I’m on the job the next day. So I’ve started focusing on other things when I’m not actively at work.

I don’t mean completely shutting off all work communication — though some people do that. For me, it just means not getting sucked into the work communication (e.g., Slack) at all times just because I’m still on the computer for the majority of the time when I’m not working.

If you’re at your computer when you’re not working, try to focus on things that relax you. Watching a movie, reading a book, playing games, etc. are great ways to relax your mind.

It’s crucial now more than ever since we are all isolated and can’t just hang out with our friends whenever we want. The mind needs some sort of entertainment. If you let your mind relax for a bit, it will be recharged the next time you’re working, so there’s less chance of burning out.

A valid point that may be raised here is that you should also invest in building new skills. I completely agree. You should spend some of your free time investing in yourself and learning new things. But I would stress the importance of striking a balance on how much time you’re spending on learning.

Some people enjoy learning, and this can be just great as a source of entertainment for them as any.

Some people enjoy learning, and this can be just great as a source of entertainment for them as any. For others, learning is a difficult task, sometimes more complicated than the actual work that you do, and so, spending all the free time learning may cause you to burn out faster when you’re working.

Again, the important thing here is the balance. It’s not easy to learn something new when you’re working from home all of a sudden, but it can be done, which brings us back to the very first point of creating a routine and trying to stick to it as much as possible.

I hope the tips above help you avoid burnout when working from home. I always love talking about this topic, so if you have questions or need help improving your new work-from-home balance, feel free to send me an email!

If you have more tips to share with me and my readers on how to avoid burning out when working from home, please share in the comments section below!

* Simplenote is a product of Automattic, a company where I work. Unlike, which I started using seven years before joining Automattic, I started using Simplenote shortly after joining and I recommend it for its key feature, simplicity.

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