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Avoid Burnout While Working From Home

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

While some of us were working from home before the “shelter in place” order, most of us were used to commuting to a workplace of some sort. Whether that commute was cause for complaint -- no one likes waking up early to sit in traffic -- or not, sudden change is hard on everyone. Even those who were used to working from home are having to cope with a lot of change right now too -- housemates making noise, slowing the internet, and interrupting them. Not to mention the change the pandemic has caused in stress level: more ambient stress (stress that is constant but relatively low-grade), and more frequent spikes in acute stress (stress that is short term but can be relatively high).

Thankfully, while few of us have dealt with anything like a pandemic before, the people who have mastered the art of working from home are sharing their advice.Some of the best advice we’ve read on preventing burnout, drops in productivity/focus, and overworking, was written by David Dennis Jr., in his article: Why It’s So Exhausting to Work From Home. We expanded on his 5 tips for your convenience below.

  1. Focus on tasks completed over time spent

  2. Step away from your computer

  3. Take back your commute time

  4. Don’t work in bed

  5. Cut yourself some slack

Focus on Tasks Completed Over Time Spent Think about the last time you went into work. If you are being honest with yourself, did you work from the moment you sat until the moment that you left? Probably not. At the very least you took a lunch and a bathroom break. Maybe you got distracted by your co-worker who always seems to be making small talk or checking social media. Regardless, you probably still managed to get all of the work done that you needed to, so you aren’t hard on yourself about lost time.

For some reason when we work from home, we have a tendency to feel much more guilty about those off-task moments, despite the fact that we are more likely to overwork from home. So take a second to recall what your average level of productivity at the office looked like, then make that your goal.

If you reach your goal before the end of the normal workday, give yourself permission to stop working so that you can allocate that time for other critical tasks. For example, you may be having to spend more time cleaning, or tracking down toilet paper, or preparing a meal you used to dine-out for because of the pandemic. Your time and energy are finite (and hopefully your boss is reasonable), so don’t feel obligated to work longer than you need to, to get the work done.

Step Away From the Computer! This is not a suggestion, it’s an order on the authority of your wellbeing and productivity. Let’s say you are doing what you're supposed to, and you’re focusing on output over time, only you aren’t able to maintain your average level of productivity -- even working overtime! What should you do? Well, only you know the specifics of your situation. If you are genuinely going to be fired if you don’t maintain your level of productivity, then do what you have to do to keep food on the table, but make sure your thinking isn’t distorted first! (Check your thoughts against this list of cognitive distortions, or simply search the terms “Fortune Telling” and “Catastrophizing.”)

If you can afford to take a break from your work without risking your job security then you should absolutely do so. Taking a break to make sure your basic needs are met will actually keep you from burning out and increase your productivity. So step away from the computer. Make sure you take your full lunch break, and aren’t checking your work email while on it. Try some midday stretching or exercise (if you are antsy from sitting at your desk or caffeine, moving your body will help you focus better).

As a rule, when the time and energy you are having to invest to make progress on your work stops being worth the return on that investment, it’s time to take a break, and/or switch tasks (economists call this the “Law Of Diminishing Returns”). While this is always a good rule of thumb, it’s critical to abide during stressful times like these.

Take Back Your Commute Time Whether your commute was a 15 minute walk, or a 45 minute drive, take back that time for yourself. You want to do this not only because: it’s important to maintain routines, such as what time you wake up; but also because it will help you shift gears mentally into “work mode;” and make the boundaries between “work-time” and “home-time” more clear. You might put that time to good use by spending a little longer to make a complete breakfast or in the shower, but do whatever makes the biggest difference to your mood and energy.

That said, if you have to stop working early for whatever reason, then go ahead and start work early. Remember that advice is generalized so that it’s applicable to as many people as possible, and thereby you may need to amend it to make it work for you specifically.

Don’t Work in Bed Seriously though, don’t do it. Your bed is a sacred space for sex and sleeping. If you start checking your work email in bed, it’s going to start negatively impacting one or both of those areas of your life. Trust me, it’s in your best interest not to let those areas of your life fall apart right now. Sex and sleep are both good for the immune system! So even if you do those things by yourself… focus on quality over quantity. Also getting caught drooling on a Zoom call is not cute -- I’m not saying I know this from personal experience, but I’m not denying that there is screenshot evidence either… I know this can be tempting, especially when your bedroom is the only room where you have any privacy at the moment, but it’s just not worth it.

Put on high-top Converse right when you wake up if you have to, to keep yourself from crawling back into bed. Again, whatever works for you. I personally would never lie in bed with shoes on, and Converse sneakers are the biggest pain to take off -- if you’ve ever worn them through airport security, then you’ve already learned this the hard way.

Cut Yourself Some Slack I ordered takeout for dinner last night, and if I’m being honest, I told myself I was doing it so I could “support a local business,” but really it was because I didn’t feel like cooking or doing dishes again. For the record, it was totally worth it. So if your budget permits, and you feel safe doing so, I highly recommend ordering delivery -- especially if you’ve been living off the non-perishable foods you bought over a month ago.

Go ahead and watch “junk television” if you feel like it. I know I simply don’t have the mental capacity for Ken Burns right now, but will always benefit from a good laugh, and having something light to do, or to talk about with my partner at the end of a long day.

We hope you find this rendition of David Dennis Jr., Why It’s So Exhausting to Work From Home helpful. Please continue to reach out with specific questions on how to cope with this difficult time.

Written by Sophie Wright

Originally published on 04/14/2020

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