Study and relax in the same room without going stir-crazy
Working from home does have some perks, but at a certain point being locked up in a tiny room all the time can make it feel as if the walls are starting to close in on you. ‘One of the huge challenges when working from home is to manage boundaries between work and leisure time’, says Susanne Scheibe, who specializes in occupational health and well-being. ‘The cues your brain associates with work and those it associates with relaxation are suddenly attached to the same environment.’
The result is a blurring of these boundaries, which in the long term affects both your mental and physical health. Luckily there are ways to trick your mind into thinking you’re at your place of work.
Create the right set-up
It all starts with a suitable workspace. Make sure you have one spot that is dedicated solely to work. Bertus Jeronimus, who specializes in well-being, recommends moving your table to a different corner of the room and then moving it back once the work session is over. This way you create physical boundaries and sort of simulate that office or library environment.
Small changes in your surroundings can help to separate work from leisure time. Jessica de Bloom, whose research focuses on the vanishing boundaries between work and non-work life, suggests using a bright light that you switch on during work and exchange for softer lighting at the end of the day. This helps to signal your brain that it’s time for relaxation.
Discuss your boundaries
When you and your housemates agree on certain norms, that creates an environment where everyone knows what to expect of each other, but also how to support each other. To manage social boundaries effectively, you can put a sign on the door when you’re doing work that requires maximum concentration, to ensure no one disturbs your workflow. Alternatively, Scheibe suggests using a die that is red on one side and green on the other to signal to housemates whether they can approach you.
Do things in blocks
Next to setting physical and social boundaries, you should also mentally separate work and non-work by doing things in blocks. Experts Scheibe and Jeronimus agree that the importance of sticking to a routine when you’re in charge of managing your own schedule can’t be overstated.
‘You should create a start time, a point at which your daily routine begins. Make sure to get out of your pajamas and into your work outfit’, says Jeronimus. ‘You should schedule a fixed end time too, even if the task you have been working on is unfinished.’
In between the start and end time, it’s essential to schedule breaks. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll skip them. Set a timer to remind you to take a breather. During those breaks, let your mind wander and avoid things that are cognitively demanding. Instead, go for simple activities such as watering your plants.
Change it up
Throughout the day, switch between tasks. Scheduling your day in a way that allows you to work on different things will make it easier to stay motivated. On days you don’t feel particularly energetic, it helps to start the morning with assignments or projects you are excited about. That way, your energy levels will peak and you’ll be encouraged to continue working.
‘Tailor your daily schedule according to how you feel that day,’ says PhD student Elissa El Khawli, who focuses on well-being at work. ‘This makes it easier to subsequently focus on other things that may be more mundane.’
Log your mood and productivity
El Khawli recommends a diary for this. ‘Get a notebook to log how effective you were each day and add details. Did you sleep well? Did you drink a particularly good coffee? After a while you may recognize a pattern’, she says. Jeronimus agrees: ‘Writing down everything that’s on your mind, including your emotions, will give you more peace of mind at the end of the day when it’s time to relax.’
Lastly, keep in mind that different things work for different people. You might be one of those who are perfectly fine with working from bed and get everything done nonetheless. Maybe you’re more of a morning person, or prefer studying together at a friend’s place or via Zoom. Experiment with different strategies to find out what works best for you to maximize both your productivity and feeling of well-being when working from home.