In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many facets of our lives, especially work. In response, many businesses had to quickly implement remote work as a way to keep their employees safe while still maintaining productivity.
Change is hard
While the concept of remote work is nothing new, for millions of people, this abrupt transition from the office to the home has not been as easy as they thought it might be. For some, the change was something they had wanted to try for some time, and for others it was an unexpected pleasure. Yet, for everyone, working from home presented a few challenges. One of those was maintaining a work-life balance/staying focused.
Work-life balance, even without a pandemic, can be challenging, but for many of us in our pre-COVID-19 lives, work was work, and home was home. There were clear boundaries, both physical and personal, that allowed us to set priorities and find a healthy balance.
The pandemic forced many of us to suddenly merge our work with our personal lives and spaces with little preparation and planning. Over the last year and a half, many of us have struggled to create a new normal.
Many of my colleagues and friends describe their feelings of stress, frustration, and anger with how their work at home has become seemingly ever present and never ending; checking email all hours of the day, attending Zoom meetings in the evening, working on the weekends, and more.
Yet, all the daily responsibilities and distractions of home are still calling for your attention as you try to work: the dirty dishes in the sink, the unfolded laundry, the potato chips on the shelf, and children or pets looking for affection.
Juggling all of this can quickly become too much to handle. Many of the same colleagues and friends report feeling alone, unhealthy, overwhelmed, anxious, and even panicked.
If we can’t go back to the old normal, what can we do?
Regain your sense of control
When trying to make positive changes in our lives, we often can’t change the external world around us. What we can change, though, is how we react to it and our behavior. For many people, time management is their biggest frustration and why they feel they have no control of their lives.
The two following steps are excellent ways to start improving your time management skills.
Make a schedule
One of the best ways to take control is to make a schedule for yourself. Decide when you officially sit down and start and stick to it. Plan break, lunch, and quitting times. These will flex at times, but keeping to a schedule gives you a structure to work within. It also lets others (colleagues, associates, and pets) know when you are available and when you are not.
Start your day by brainstorming a list of all the things you need or want to get done. Then prioritize them with a simple numbering system. Try to keep the maximum to ten. If you have more, you might find yourself back at the stressed-out starting point. Finally, rewrite or reorganizing them by priority to create a to-do list or hourly schedule will allow you to stay on track and keep your focus. Check them off, too, or even when you accomplish small steps that are part of a bigger project. Sent that email? Great. Mark that step as done. You’ll feel productive and see how your day and projects break down more clearly.
Also called the Pomodoro technique, timeboxing involves the use of a timer or smartphone app to create a set amount of time for working on a project of activity, usually 30 minutes. During this time, you should do nothing but focus on the task at hand.
Timeboxing is effective because it allows you to work without worrying about when you should stop or how much is enough. You know that the work session will end after an amount of time that you have chosen. It’s also helpful to keep you away from social media sites, the chocolate bar calling your name from the kitchen shelf, and the next episode of your favorite series on Netflix.
Personally, I use timeboxing for my writing and language study and have found it to be an extremely effective way to maintain productivity. I will admit to rewarding myself with some of that chocolate bar, though…
Taking care of the body, mind, and soul
Your physical health
When working from home, many of us now spend most of the day sitting in front of a screen. We’ve become much more house bound and sedentary as we try to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from infection. People talk about “Zoom fatigue” and compare notes on how much weight they’ve gained since the pandemic started. Let’s be honest: it’s hard to stop working and take a break. It’s even harder to stay motivated in terms of fitness and health.
Schedule a fitness break
If exercise is a priority for you, you need to add it to the plan or schedule discussed above. It needs to become a habit, part of your daily routine. If you say to yourself, “I’ll do some desk stretches after I finish work,” or “I’ll go for a walk after I finish this project,” it is very likely that it will never happen. Don’t make it a “willpower” thing - make it a permanent part of your schedule.
Set up a standing desk
If you have a laptop or a desktop with an adjustable monitor, you might consider buying or creating a standing desk system where you can stand to give yourself a break from sitting down for too long. There are many computer stands and other equipment that provide flexible options. However, you do need to be careful as standing for too long can also cause problems with your back or legs. A standing desk mat to stand on may provide extra comfort.
Purchase a flat or folding treadmill
If you are really serious about getting some exercise while working, a smaller, compact treadmill might be just the answer. A flat treadmill combined with a standing desk or computer stand allows the user to walk at a slow to moderate pace while working at a computer. A folding treadmill with some shelving is another option that can save space and function as a standing desk when folded up.
I have a folding treadmill and standing desk combination in my home that I have used for more than 12 years. It takes up very little space, and I usually walk and work for two to four 30-minutes sessions a day, usually catching up on email and other digital housekeeping. The total cost was less than 300 USD, and it is one of the best investments in myself I have ever made.
Your mental health
As mentioned above, while working at home can be a good way to protect yourself from exposure to COVID-19 infection, it can also create stress and anxiety.
For many people, it can be difficult to concentrate or maintain a positive and balanced view of life when constantly feeling out of control or overwhelmed.
What can you do when your mind is racing or you feel anxious?
Making a conscious effort to calm your mind is one proactive way you can take control of your life and center yourself. One of the many benefits of meditation is that it requires no equipment or space. It is very simple to include meditation as part of your work day, allowing you to efficiently and effectively engage in mindfulness where and when you need it most. It is easy to create your own meditation routine, or you can download and use some excellent free meditation apps. There are also some great online meditation groups that give you a sense of community while helping you learn to find stillness.
Similar to meditation, focused breathing exercises can also help you reduce stress and relax. By consciously taking the time to concentrate on your breathing and your internal state of mind, you can slow that racing mind and decrease that anxiety.
Your emotional health
The following quote from familydoctor.org perhaps sums up the importance of your emotional health the best:
”Emotional health is an important part of overall health. People who are emotionally healthy are in control of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They’re able to cope with life’s challenges. They can keep problems in perspective and bounce back from setbacks. They feel good about themselves and have good relationships.”
However, staying safe during COVID-19 has made it difficult to maintain those relationships and positive feelings. When working from home, we don’t see our colleagues at the office, share lunch, or go out for drinks after work. We worry about visiting family and friends and possibly infecting people we care about.
One silver lining in the cloud that is COVID-19 is the growing acceptance of meeting by video conferencing systems both professionally and personally. Before the pandemic, many people thought it strange to meet with family or friends on Zoom or Google Meet. Now it doesn’t feel so strange anymore.
To maintain and build those relationships, be proactive in terms of reacting out to people to talk and hear a human voice. Depending on your relationship with the person, you can schedule the meeting, or you can spontaneously “call” them. They may not be able to pick up, but they will know that you cared enough to reach out to them.
Surround yourself with positivity
In your work space at home, you should create an environment that makes you happy, that brings a smile to your face. Depending on your situation, consider the following:
New and old photos of family, friends, weddings, birthdays, and good memories on the wall in front of you
Plants strategically placed to create a more natural atmosphere and
an intimate space
Art, posters, and souvenirs of past trips and travel
Music to keep you energized and motivated (check out some of these music for office work YouTube videos. Pro tip: listening to these YouTube videos in your Internet browser will avoid the advertisements that frequently appear in the YouTube app.)
Regain control and your peace of mind
Taking the initiative to create a space for yourself to work, to breathe, and to relax can help you restore and refresh. Productivity is great, but to be at your best and most productive, you need to recharge and recenter in this new normal. Finding your work-life balance point will help you find a fresh perspective.
Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.