How I learned to stay sane while working from home for 15 years
Exercise daily, find joy in small things and find a routine that works for you
It’s important to add some structure to our days. Photograph: iStock
Right from the beginning of the first lockdown, we were bombarded with advice on how to get through what we thought would be a one-off working-from-home experience.
Now, almost a year later, many of us are still making the daily commute from one room to another as we try to go about our normal daily lives.
And in order to keep ourselves sane, we have been advised to do various things, including getting dressed as if we are heading into the office, putting on make-up (presumably this was aimed at women, but who knows?), wearing shoes (or, as one “expert” recommended, power heels) and designating a separate area to resemble your actual workplace.
This is all very well, and aspects will work for some people, but as someone who has worked from home for the past 15 years, I beg to differ.
Yes, it is important to stick to a routine, but it is not necessary to wear uncomfortable clothes and shoes – because unless you are on a video link, no one is going to know if you are wearing your favourite slouchy jumper with trackie bottoms and slippers – and if you feel warm and comfortable, then you will, in my opinion, be able to work more efficiently.
But I do believe it is vital to start the day well – and a brisk walk is the best way to clear the head. Recently I have started leaving my earphones at home in order to avoid the negative news and allow my thoughts to drift. As well as being relaxing, it can also be a great way to formulate a plan of action for the day and come up with ideas or solutions for work issues. This, followed by a hot shower, is a great way to get into work mode.
If, like countless parents across the country, you are also trying to home school your children, then the above seems like a fantasy. But, while my three are now grown-up and studying independently, I have been there; working long into the night to try and meet deadlines as it was the only time I had any peace; conducting important telephone interviews with my back against the door to stop squabbling children from interrupting me for five minutes; and even watching in horror as my toddler gleefully ate his body weight in the multipack of Smarties he had found when I answered a call – eyeballing me while I was trying to pay attention to an eminent professor explaining the latest advances in medical science.
During those adrenalin-filled days, I often felt like tearing my hair out, but I still tried to factor in a daily walk (with kids in tow), planned interviews during nap time (theirs not mine) and used the TV as a babysitter when required. It didn’t always go to plan, and I can empathise with everyone who is trying to do the same right now. On top of the reality of the surreal world we are living in, this added pressure can cause a huge amount of stress.
Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids, says it’s important to add some structure to our days as everyone, whether home-schooling, working from home or simply trying to get through the pandemic, will be feeling the strain.
“If ever there was a time when we needed to learn to live in the present, it is now,” she advises. “The timescale is so uncertain that we can’t really organise beyond the next week or so. It is much more helpful to work with this and focus the mind on how to knock some joy out of today rather than wishing our lives away with nebulous plans for the future.
“Many clients I am seeing are reporting significant crashes to their mental health. And it feels to me that we are moving into a mental health crisis because of the extended lockdown – and this requires more attention and some integration into the current policies.”
Many people are struggling to cope with the enormity of what is happening, both on a global and a personal level. Like O’Malley suggests, I try to focus on the little things every day rather than looking at the big picture, which can be overwhelmingly negative – particularly as, aside from keeping ourselves at a distance from others, there is precious little we can do about the situation.
But we can take steps to keep ourselves upbeat – for me, this means daily walks, good books, feelgood films in front of a roaring fire, nice food, the odd treat and a glass of wine at the weekend. Put like that, it doesn’t seem all that bad and there are so many people for whom these would be deemed extraordinary luxuries.
Psychologist Peadar Maxwell says our ability to counter bad news has been sorely tried this past year. And he advises living on a need-to-know basis. “Current national and international news stories would try the best of us,” he says. “But we do still have the ability to fight negativity by how we control our daily sensory intake.
“One of the things we can do is separate fact from fiction by ensuring a reliable source of information. Also, remember that while we want to be informed, we don’t have to listen to and watch serious news all of the time – we need to take a break from it. Tell yourself that you are doing all you can to stay safe and mind your emotional health and wellbeing. You can’t control the behaviour of others, but you can control how you think about it. So take the Covid precautions you need to take and don’t get caught up in other people’s denial or anger.
“You can of course listen to loved ones who are upset, disappointed or anxious but not so that you are the therapist for your entire circle. Also, get outside, allow your eyes to take in nature, enjoy the company of your pets or other animals. Enjoy the company of a person who might help lift your spirits or vice versa. We can usually find nature and positive sensory input in our locality, but if not, then search for positive podcasts about growth, meditation or self-development and stay away from the bad news.”
Maxwell says we should also factor some exercise into our daily routine as this will benefit both our physical and mental health. And try, if possible, to engage in a motivating project.
“Exercise and novelty are incredibly important,” he says. “Go for a walk and follow a YouTube video of yoga or doable exercises. Exercise your brain, too, as you may be understimulated – so read a book, check out a free language app, fix or organise something that has needed attention. I know someone who has replaced their favourite social media App with a language App, and this has lifted their spirits. This can also be applied to improving cooking skills or getting the garden tidied up now before things start to grow again. Think about how rewarding it could be having it ready for Easter this year.”
Stella O’Malley agrees: “The little nuggets of pleasure in the day are probably the most important ingredients for a happy life,” she says. “The poet Derek Mahon nailed it when he said, “decant your wine: the days are more fun than the years which pass us by while we discuss them”.
Peader Maxwell advises: “But if you find that all of this is too much or that you don’t have someone to talk your worries out with, please don’t keep that to yourself. Most services are still operating. Call Aware, the Samaritans, a good friend or a local service in primary care and ask to speak with someone. Remember that it is good to talk.”
And, I think it’s also worth remembering that this too shall pass.