One of the primary concerns managers have regarding telework is whether they can trust that their employees are working. There are many distractions when working from home, and managers fear that employees will be less productive if tempted to do chores, run errands, attend to the needs of family members, or use screens for entertainment. These concerns are understandable, and I am sure there are many employees who work from home and feel the pull of distractions. However, instead of being distracted by things around the home, I often find the opposite is true. Having an office at home can be a distraction from family life, and can create a challenge to achieving a balanced work-home life.
When you work from home, the work is always there and there is always more work. Work can nag at the back of your mind – calling you back to your home office. I have been working from home for over 30 years and I have gone through several phases of spending too much time at work. Here are some common symptoms:
- Thinking too much about work when you’re not at work
- Getting up in the morning and abandoning your normal routine to go straight to work
- Stepping into your office during personal time for “just a few minutes” and then getting pulled into much longer stints at work
- Avoiding other activities, appointments, and events in your life so that you can do more work
- Feeling trapped as if the pressure will never end and becoming overwhelmed, tired, and stressed
Not fun. If prolonged, overworking can lead to tension in your personal relationships, resentment about work, and health-related issues due to stress. So how do you get the balance back when the scales have tipped too far toward work?
I recently went through a period of long work hours each day and working 6 to 7 days a week. Though no one was standing over me to crack the whip, I felt pressured to get more done. I quickly got off routine and I noticed that my energy was zapped – it was hard to have the energy to do more than to work, accomplish basic home chores and limited commitments in my personal life, and watch TV in the evenings – mostly to avoid thinking about more work.
I didn’t feel I could break away to have fun – I canceled my vacations and even attempts to be a weekend warrior (for me, this meant going on a hike, catching the latest movie, etc.). I thought that if I could just push through my work projects, things would improve and I would “get back to normal.” One project led to another. This went on for four months.
When I finally took a break – an impromptu afternoon off – I had a lot of fun test driving a car that I had my eye on. Miraculously, I forgot all about work. I also purchased that car on the spur of the moment (a moment that my wife has not easily forgotten). But, on the flipside, I rarely think about work when I’m behind the wheel.
Here are the steps I went through to break out of my rut. I hope they will help you.
The first thing you must do is to get in touch with yourself. To do so, mentally take a step backwards and try to recognize how you’re feeling, especially focusing on the things that are causing you stress. This may sound touchy-feely, but I think our bodies know what we need and it’s our minds that can get off track. Sometimes the wheels of work spin in our minds and shut out healthier thoughts that lead to a more balanced perspective. So, take a break to clear your head – go out for the evening, go to the spa, take a short trip - do something that you enjoy to break out of the rut. We always hear that smiles are contagious and that is true, including the times that we are smiling inside. Feeling joy will make you want to feel more joy, so get out of the house and take a break from work to do something fun. Sometimes that’s all it takes to snap out of the rut.
2. Plan Your Way Out
Now that you’ve had a break and your head is clear, it’s time to apply your fresh mind to an actionable plan. Working long hours on a defined project for a limited time is understandable – we’ve all had projects that require our full attention and demand working overtime and sacrificing our personal time. This is not the same as repeatedly working long hours and feeling that there’s no light at the end of the workload tunnel. So, plan your way out.
Make a list of the tasks you need to do to complete your project(s), and align the task with your due dates. Try to estimate the time you need to complete each task. From personal experience, I know this is often difficult, but it is worth the effort to help manage both your time and your expectations. Commit the time estimated for each task to blocks of time on your calendar (written or electronic). Leave some “white space” between the blocks on your calendar as nothing ever goes quite as planned. You can use the white space time to recharge your batteries if your tasks are running on schedule, or you can fill that time with work should your tasks take longer than anticipated. Defining your tasks as blocks of time is helpful because, as we all know, work has a tendency to expand to the time that you have available.
Try not to let the tendency to overwork go beyond one or two weeks. Once you have broken your routine for this long, it is a challenge to get back to a healthy balance. If your period of overwork is going to extend beyond this time frame, place blocks of time on your calendar to get away from the office to do something you enjoy at least twice each week. This will help to recharge your batteries, provide perspective (see above), and keep the joy in your life.
3. Avoid Multitasking
When your mind is spinning about work and your stress level is high, your productivity can slow due to distraction. During these times, it is easy to fall into a multitasking mindset. It is not uncommon to work on a project and to attempt to simultaneously focus on e-mail, social media, instant messaging, the doorbell, etc. This sets up a negative feedback loop with your work schedule. You feel stressed and it is difficult to focus, so you find yourself multitasking. When you multitask, you get less done and it causes more stress…the cycle continues. This is why it is helpful to define your tasks as blocks of time. During those blocks, focus on the task to the exclusion of everything else. Deep work means productive work. If you find this impossible to do because of the nature of your work, try to set controlled times to deal with distracting issues – such as 25 minutes of focused work and five minutes off, or 50 minutes of focused work and 10 minutes off.
The more you can avoid multitasking, the more focused and productive you will be. The more productive you are, the more you can manage your work schedule and find the time for more balance in your life.
4. Get Back to Your Routine
Though the work may seem unending, by following the steps above, you will be able to get back to a healthy routine. In my opinion, everyone needs a routine to thrive. Routines help to shed stress and keep us balanced. Structure and routine are incredibly important to people working from home. This structure includes a consistent time to wake up and go to sleep, time to begin and stop work, regular meals and breaks throughout the day, and time to spend with friends and family. Add in some exercise and fresh air and you have a well-rounded routine for a healthier, more productive you. During periods of intense work, the sooner you get back to your routine, the easier it will be to accomplish and the healthier your work-life balance will be.
Working at home can be a challenge.Keeping a routine is the best way to stay productive and balanced. If you find yourself in an overworking rut with too much stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, I hope the four steps above will help you as they helped me. And, if you end up buying a car while trying to get a healthier perspective, just know that I’ve been there too. Drive on!