As someone who has worked from home exclusively for the last few years, I’ve hidden a few chuckles at the reactions of newly remote workers in the wake of COVID-19. The introverts and night owls are pretty excited, while the extroverts and high-touch types are slowly melting down. But it seems like everyone realizes quickly that there are more challenges — and benefits — to working from home than they initially thought.
For people in various stages of recovery, stressful world events like the current COVID-19 pandemic can cause high anxiety and other troubling thoughts. This reaction is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. But the extra disruption of suddenly working from home, perhaps with parents, partners, or children around a lot more than usual, or without access to typical support systems, can cause those thoughts to escalate into behavioral lapses that we’d rather avoid.
You don’t have to face the stress alone and unprepared. Here are 10 ways you can protect your recovery and sobriety when working from home.
1) Maintain or create a routine.
Structure is going to be your best friend during uncertain times. Do your best to preserve as much of your usual workday routine as is helpful. Try to wake up around the same time, or shift your sleep schedule gradually if you have the freedom to work different hours than normal. Get dressed (designated work pajamas totally counts!), groom yourself, and designate the start of your workday.
2) Set boundaries for your work time.
When you work from home, the line between work and non-work can blur very quickly. Whenever possible, set specific times when you’re on and off the work clock. Tell your partner, roommates, and kids when you’re working and how available you will be to them during work time. (Don’t laugh! This actually worked surprisingly well with our preschooler.) You will also need to communicate these new expectations with your supervisor and coworkers, especially if you are also caring for family members while working from home.
3) Schedule totally work-free time and stick with it.
I’ve already caught myself thinking, “I’ll just work through the weekend since I’m only working a few hours a day.” Keep some time off! Write it into your planner, and maybe pick a few options of things to do during that time. When it seems like you have something scheduled during off time, you’ll be less likely to just blow it off and keep working. Your body and brain need the rest, especially if you’re caregiving on top of coping with your own stress.
4) Make space for work.
I love my home office setup and have spent years perfecting it, but don’t worry if you can’t get a standing desk and squishy mat. If possible, make a space for yourself to work that’s (somewhat) separate from where you spend your leisure or rest time. If you must share a workspace with the kitchen table or your bed, have some way to denote when it is a workspace and when it’s not, such as a special candle or funny sign.
5) Track your time.
This is one of my favorite productivity hacks ever. When I’m working, I use a time tracking app to see how long I spend on different tasks. I am much less tempted to sneak on Facebook when the clock is running. Sometimes I set myself little challenges: Can I write this article in less than two hours? How many posts can I schedule in the next 25 minutes? Time tracking can also serve as a bit of a mindfulness reminder as you check in on what you’re doing every so often.
6) Establish a social-distanced water cooler.
Even avowed introverts like me need regular human interaction, maybe more so in times of crisis. I have one freelance pal who has become my virtual officemate. We text-chat on Google Hangouts throughout the day, asking for feedback on projects, talking about our families, or swapping dinner recipes. If one of us needs to go heads down, it’s no problem. I find this level of interaction helps me feel much less alone when working. I’m also in several entrepreneurial groups on Slack and Mighty Networks, so I usually pop in those a few times a week to talk shop. Some freelancers like to meet over video to get hyped up before sprinting on a project for a few hours, and others like to keep a Zoom room open while they’re working for friendly chatter. Experiment to find what works for you, and don’t feel awkward about asking for virtual company. Everyone is looking for this right now!
7) Plan ahead to minimize friction points.
Without the external expectations of going to work (and having your boss ten feet away!), you may begin to experience a form of decision fatigue. What will you wear now that you can work in pajamas? When will you start or stop the work day? How long will you spend surfing social media if no one is watching? All of these seemingly small choices start to add up, making hard choices (like not drinking) harder than usual. I’ve found that planning ahead, especially with mundane things like meals and outfits, reduces or eliminates some of the extra choice load. By deciding on Sunday what we’re doing for dinner throughout the week, I spend less energy asking myself, “Well, what now?” each day at 5 o’clock.
8) Find safe coping mechanisms and do your best to eliminate or hide triggering ones.
If your partner or someone else in your household keeps alcohol around the home, it can be triggering for you to suddenly be around it all day long. Respectfully ask if they can store it out of sight or do without it for now. Alcohol may be a stress reliever for the other person, so help them find alternative ways to relax during stressful times. Offer to go for a walk or meditate together instead of unwinding with a glass of wine.
9) Practice self-maintenance.
My best friend keeps a list of little things that make her happy, and when she’s stressed out, she just consults the list and picks something to do. Make yourself a quick-charge list and keep it near your work space. Whenever it’s time for a break, pick something on the list and jump in. You could try:
- Making a snack or beverage
- Trimming or buffing your nails
- Coloring or drawing
- Singing along to a favorite song (bonus points for dancing!)
- Taking a walk
- Texting a friend
- Writing a letter
- Playing with a pet or child
10) Give yourself and others grace and compassion.
Martha Beck wrote that addictions and negative behaviors can present us with secondary gains. This means that those behaviors meet some sort of need, even if they cause much bigger harm in the process. And we keep doing the behaviors unless we find some other way to meet our needs. Those needs often fall into three categories: Freedom, kindness, and rest. In stressful times, those can feel even more scarce, but you can still find ways to give freedom, kindness, and rest to yourself and to others. When your needs are met, old addictions and behaviors will hold less appeal.
Everything on this list carries a whopping qualifier: To the best of your ability. You might need more accommodations in schedule or workload than your employer has given. You may not have a choice but to multitask or wait to work until the kids are in bed. You might run out of spoons by 10 o’clock every morning. It’s okay. You’re okay. Just do the best you can. We’re rooting for you!