Tens of thousands of traditionally office-bound employees suddenly found themselves working from home this year. Judging by my Twitter feed, most have gone through three distinct phases in the months since:
1. “I get to work from home!”
2. “I’m still working from home.”
3. “I guess I work from home now…”
Their initial excitement slowly melted into a puddle of anxiety, burnout and the sort of low-level stress born from the realization that without distinct boundaries, work has taken over all available space in their lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve spent the last 12 years working remotely as a consultant and startup advisor. I’ve worked from laptops and cellphones, in tiny hotel rooms across the globe and from my own desk at home. In that time, I’ve learned that working from home is a skill, one that first requires learning how to set boundaries.
Nothing of value can be created without constraints, and work is no different. We need frameworks to be effective. Offices typically provide this: telling us when to come in, when to leave, when to eat and what is expected of us.
Working from home requires that we recreate these guardrails for ourselves, and the best way I’ve found to do that is by asking three key questions:
This is the most important and trickiest one to answer, because it requires that we think deeply about what we actually do in a day. So many of us are used to working to our calendars or to the clock, without any functional understanding of how long we need to write an email, put together a Powerpoint or take a call.
The result is that when left to our own devices, we just bash everything together on one endless list. That leads to being overwhelmed and the sinking feeling that we’re falling behind. By understanding how much time each of our tasks take—which will consume five minutes and which will need half a day—we can start setting priorities. We can also avoid adding unnecessary hours to the end of our day, and save ourselves a lot of anxiety.
Once you understand how long everything takes, you can start building out your task list. The goal is not to fill your schedule to the point of bursting, but instead to craft a work day where you’re making the most effective use of a set number of hours. When designing this, you should include both the priorities you’ve been given, and your own work habits in the equation. If, for example, you know that Wednesday’s three-hour Zoom meeting generally leaves you exhausted, it might be better to catch up your emails for the rest of the afternoon, rather than starting in on the next deck.
Unlike an office schedule (which tends to be reactive), an effective at-home schedule requires planning. Use your freedom to optimize your day, recognize that there are a thousand ways to organize your time, and that finding the one that is best for you requires experimentation. By doing this consistently, you can keep a good amount of burnout at bay.
In an office this is easy. But when working from home, it can often feel like you’re never quite doing enough. To combat this, it’s important to develop your own clear audit and metrics for effectiveness. How many words did you write? Did you participate in the Slack channel? Are you keeping up on analytics?