Avoid the 3 Common Traps of Working from Home

By: Ashley Ernst

WFH Solutions Architect, 6 yrs

Note: This blog post is specifically addressed to folks who have to keep working from home during the pandemic. I send my sympathy to those who have been laid off and a thousand thanks to those considered “essential workers” who are keeping society’s wheels turning during this wild time.

Out of what seems like nowhere, all California residents who are able to continue working during ‘Shelter in Place’ find ourselves in a situation where we have to work from our home (WFH). Some folks are celebrating the opportunity while others are cursing their misfortune. 

I’ve been working thousands of miles from my coworkers for 6+ years now and have learned a thing or two about common traps for WFH. The foundation of my (WFH) advice boils down to 2 fundamentals: 

1. Know yourself (strengths and weak areas)

This is crucial. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution in life and you need to know yourself well enough to recognize a solution that will work for you when you try one.

2. Set appropriate boundaries (for yourself, those around you, and your space)

You do not exist in a vacuum. It’s important to find the solutions that work for you in context. Keep an open line of communication going with your space-sharers and remote coworkers so you can find your path of least resistance. 

With those two things in mind, here are some common traps to avoid:

Common trap 1: Working around the clock

If you’re like me and can easily let work fully take over your identity and bleed into every corner of life if you’re not careful,  this advice is for you! Burnout isn’t good for you, your family, or your employer! Know yourself. Set appropriate boundaries.

  1. Leave emails for working hours: DO NOT accidentally get yourself into the habit of checking your emails from bed before or after working hours. This is a terrible habit (I know all too well) that you will regret. Sends the wrong message to others at work that you are available at all hours and keeps you from being fully present in your home life. 
  2. Set specific working hours: Be diligent about creating a time limit (aka boundary) on what your working and non-working hours are… and hold yourself accountable. Set a beginning of the workday and end of the workday alarms if you are prone to ignoring time when you’re in the zone. If you really need help with this one you can implement some kind of reward system for honoring your time boundary. (I personally struggle in this area and have implemented a glorious wine and chocolate reward system for sticking to my boundary)
  3. Leverage symbolic gestures: Choose an article of clothing that makes you feel professional and wear it ONLY and consistently during your set working hours. Doesn’t matter if it’s a tie, blazer, pair of heels, lipstick shade, … or that it’s paired with your sweats! The goal here is to create a mental association with the act of working and the article of clothing so you know you mean business when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Have fun with this one
  4. Create a dedicated workspace: Creating a space boundary prevents your papers and computer setup from gradually taking over your whole house. Designate a corner of a table or room, does not need to be an entire room but should be a dedicated space if possible.
  5. Pencil in food and movement breaks: This goes back to creating time boundaries. Pencil a lunch break and smaller breaks right on your calendar so you are reminded when it’s time to put the work down. Do not forget to eat and drink water all day!!

Common Trap 2: Non-work related distractions

If you have a hard time getting into a work groove because there are non-work related projects and non-colleagues vying for your attention, this advice is for you. First off, give yourself a break if you’re feeling distracted – these are uncertain times and anxieties are running high for most humans on earth. There’s only so much that is within our control and managing our expectations and strategies for productivity are some things within reach. Know yourself. Set appropriate boundaries.

  1. Set specific working hours: Most people need several uninterrupted hours of work to get into a productive groove. Do not pepper in non-work related projects throughout the day, answer social calls, or do personal tasks during this time AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. If you can only get an essential appointment (like with your therapist) during your scheduled work hours, make an exception! 
  2. Clear your mind and workspace of clutter: If you are distracted by laundry and mounting non-work related tasks, you have three options: 1. eliminate the distraction immediately by completing the task (ideally outside of your scheduled working hours), 2. hide the distraction from sight during working hours (push the laundry into a closet Face your desk into a corner so you can’t see your messy room?), or 3. write it on a list to get it off your mind and make a promise to yourself to revisit at a later date. If you can’t see it, it’s not real… right?
  3. Communicate “do not bother” time needs with others: Maybe your office has a really active slack channel that’s always pinging you or you’re sharing space with family/partner/roommate who aren’t familiar with your usual work etiquette. It’s on you to communicate with anyone in your immediate space that you need some heads down working time or that you’re in a meeting so they don’t stroll through the background of your video call in their undies. Be nice and have patience with others. Find a strategy that works for you to share that you need to be left alone to do good work. Ideas: Throw up a slack away message. Turn on an auto email responder to alert coworkers you are working but unavailable for a time. Tell your kids/roommate/partner that when your headphones are on, you need to not be interrupted (please wear highly visible headphones if this is the strategy you use). If the door is closed they should text you for permission prior to entering. 

Common Trap 3: Tech-neck and personal hygiene slips

Some of us are more prone to sedentary lives than others. With gym closures, shelter-in-place, and fears on the rise of being in public spaces, we’re all needing to get creative about adding movement into our day. Most of our homes are not optimized for working extended periods of time or for working out. Here are some ways to keep your health in mind while WFH. Know yourself. Set appropriate boundaries.

  1. Protect positive associations with your bed: Everyone should have the opportunity to try working from bed once (it’s glorious!), but it’s not advisable to make a habit of it. It’s not good for your body, productivity, or mind long term; PLUS you don’t want to accidentally create a mental association with work and your bed, where you’d probably rather associate great sleep and maybe some sexy stuff.
  2. Prevent and address tech neck: Don’t underestimate the importance of good posture for your overall health and well being! Take steps to set up your dedicated work space with ergonomics in mind: 6 Tips to Improve Posture While Sitting. If you are already feeling strained in the neck and back, try these stretches: 5 Stretches to Beat Tech Neck.
  3. Get moving: A quick google search will show you how scary the negative impacts of a sedentary lifestyle can be. Not exercising will negatively impact your metabolism, anxiety levels, increase stiffness, and lead to chronic pain and illness. Get creative about adding movement to your home regimen. Some ideas: 
    1. Drink your morning tea/coffee while meandering around the neighborhood (don’t forget to social distance while getting your steps in!)
    2. Take calls while walking, if possible
    3. Play the stairs game: example if I have to go downstairs, I would go down-backup-down or vice versa to increase daily # of steps
    4. Practice the 50:10 rule – for every 50 minutes of work break for 10 minutes of pushups, jumping jacks, or vigorous dancing to get your blood moving
    5. Take a brisk walk to clear your mind before a grueling task
    6. Take advantage of many free/cheap/sliding scale workout videos available from instagram/youtube celebrities, local gyms and yoga studios, etc..