As someone who has been self-employed for about a decade now, I've seen both the benefits and the downside of working for the world's easiest boss. I've recently made some changes to my lifestyle when I realised that, although there are many advantages of working for yourself, from home, it can affect your mental health in ways in which you may not be aware.
Here are some things to consider about your work situation and how to help yourself avoid, or deal with, a negative change in your mental state.
You may not realise that you're not thriving
This happened to me. I wasn't aware that my circumstances were dragging me down mentally. Still content with jumping on my iMac in my light and airy workspace with my little dog beside me, with the flexibility to do housework, get to appointments, meet a friend for coffee, etc., it seemed like an ideal work situation. I had no desire to work in an office again, and when someone would ask me, "Doesn't it drive you crazy to be in the house all day?", I would say that it doesn't, that I like being able to decide what to do with my time and I don't miss the drudgery of the work routine, boring meetings, office politics, etc. I'd lend an ear to friends lamenting the drama happening with a co-worker or director, and I would think of how lucky I was to be free of that aggravation. But my own work life was far from perfect.
I began to realise that I was feeling a bit down, and although my work still interested me and I enjoyed it, I found it tough to concentrate. So while I wasn't without motivation and knew that it wasn't the work that required a transition, I was without the firm structure that I needed to get things done. These obstacles persisted and that made me feel even more low and now also frustrated, so I set out to figure out what I could do. The following combination of changes helped me get back on track and feeling 100% better, not just about my work but about life in general. The key is consistency, and if you can stick to your changes - having the right combination that works for you is crucial - it really doesn't take long before you feel happier and more productive.
Create a routine
Let's face it, for some of us, if we're left to our own devices, we will push things to the limit. Procrastinate. And wind up feeling frustrated and resentful. I thought it was just me, but in talking to others who are self-employed, being efficient with our time seems to be a common challenge. It's not a matter of laziness, we're not afraid of hard work and actually embrace it, that's why we went out on our own. Rather, it's about facing creative blocks, being overwhelmed by work load or intimidated by an important project. We get stuck, which leads to frustration and low morale. We have too much time to think about things and that can make it worse. So, while it may seem counterproductive to introduce measures that are not work-related, setting aside that time to dedicated activities can in fact result in getting more done in your day. It will contribute to a productive work flow, which means you will feel the satisfaction of completing your projects on time and with your full attention. You will feel better about yourself when you do a good job that you can be proud of.
Here are some things that you can implement into your routine, on a daily or weekly schedule.
Get out of the house
A change of scenery, no matter how busy you are, is essential to maintaining a positive outlook. You need to connect with the outside world regularly, in a meaningful way. Some especially demanding days may require you to be chained to your computer, but these should be occasional exceptions. Going for a walk, even if it's just to your local shops to pick up some bread, is better than nothing. But it's easy to stay engaged in your work if it's just a short jaunt, and the purpose is to leave your work brain in the house, so choose activities that you can look forward to and will take your mind off things. And on a beautiful sunny day? Allow yourself permission to go out spontaneously during your work hours. Not everything has to be scheduled, and not only will doing this not throw you off your routine, it demonstrates that you are not stuck inside your work, that you have a balance of priorities. If you are able to relax and take time for yourself, this is ideal.
We all know we need regular exercise to be physically healthy, whatever our lifestyle. Exercise is also an effective remedy in avoiding or treating depression and anxiety. It's a great idea to do this during your work day because it's probably common knowledge now that sitting is terrible for our health, with claims that it can actually be more harmful to us than...smoking? (That's a strange and potentially dangerous comparison, likely prompting some smokers to think, Well at least I'm not sitting!) The point is that we need to move. And we need to break up our sitting time. Health professionals say that doing exercise after you've been sitting all day does not counteract the negative effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time, that we need to avoid being sedentary, every day. In this case, you don't need to do anything particularly demanding, simply getting up at regular intervals and walking around will suffice. And with that I got up and did a few stretches! The recommended common sense approach is to take five minutes to get up and move every half hour. This may be challenging if you like to get stuck into your work without interruption, but the British Heart Foundation has some information that may just scare you into doing it! They say:
"People who spend long periods of time sitting have been found to have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This was originally thought to be because those people were more likely to be obese. But there is now evidence that even if you’re not overweight, sedentary behaviour can still put you at greater risk.
Sitting for long periods is also associated with poor mental health, such as depression (although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect), and that people feel their minds are working better when they sit less."
As for general exercise, to control weight, stay fit, and mix up my day, I chose to join a health club. Gyms don't work for me, I have a mental block against going out just to work out, despite enjoying it just fine once I'm there. And I've worked out at home, but again, I can't stick to it. So I joined a health club that feels like a home away from home. I now do classes three times a week - pilates and yoga which are great for both the mind and body - and adding in weights just before each class. I also take advantage of the spa facilities so that I'm completely relaxed when I leave. Being able to de-stress that way feels like a luxury, but it is extremely effective and this is how I'm able to justify this 'indulgence'. These types of activities and doing them as a dedicated, weekly routine has probably made the biggest difference in my mental state; it turned me right around. Classes need to be booked and I'm not one to waste a space or get my name in the bad books, so this has kept me committed, and I no longer see it as something I 'have to do'. I love it and really look forward to going, even in terrible rainy, windy and cold weather, which says a lot. Joining a club may not work for everyone, due to availability or cost - I have had to give up some things to afford it - but I see it a a lifesaver that is helping me immensely. If you are lacking in exercise and a structured routine, this may work well for you.
Meditation and mindfulness activities are an essential tool for improving practically every aspect of your life. Practising meditations daily helps reduce stress, improve concentration and focus, as well as benefitting cardiovascular and immune health. Overall, it makes you feel more at peace with your life and the world, and ultimately, happier. And it's so simple. All you need to do is give it about 10 minutes a day, preferably in the morning, and before you know it you'll feel better and perform better in your work. There are countless options out there - check out YouTube, Soundcloud and bookstores - and it's best to peruse them to find which ones you like most. Some voices and approaches will appeal and some won't, so it's important to find the ones that work for you. My favourite is Dr. Danny Penman, his voice is extremely soothing and I follow his direction through the meditations very well. I introduced one of his meditation books a few years ago on this blog, you can see that here. But I also vary it a little, as just like anything else you need to keep things interesting to stay committed. I love the 90 second meditations, it's a quick fix for when you can't stop for too long but need some clarity and grounding.
That means the real kind, not the online kind that probably does more harm than good! Even if you're not a particularly social person, you need to get out and at least be around people. Walk around the city, sit in a cafe with your favourite cuppa and maybe do some work there for a change. Just being around other energies, seeing the world moving at whatever pace it does where you live, will give you a different perspective and make you feel connected to the outside world. This will help with feelings of isolation, that you may or not be aware of. The health club gives me that, but it's also good to mix it up to keep things interesting. I'm always surprised at how reinvigorating a walk around the city centre can be - it's easy to forget about life in the outside world!
Cut yourself off at the same time every day
When you work from home, it's like you never leave work. It's easy to just keep going, saying I'll just do a bit more to get a head start on tomorrow. But this just blurs work and personal time, and it will quickly take its toll on your mental health and your relationships, too. It's ok to do a bit of work on weekends, but it shouldn't be your weekend. Freelancers especially know that work can come up at any time and you need to move quickly on projects because you never know what's coming around the corner, and sometimes clients have tight deadlines. Just be mindful that when it becomes too much, you will take back control and reset your work hours to get your work and life balance back. And one thing you NEVER want to do: work in your bed. Late into the evening. Not only does having your eyes on a screen late at bed time confuse your brain and keep you awake longer, having your mind engaged with work will also overstimulate your mind, making it even harder to fall asleep. This will result in you being seriously depleted of mental sharpness and energy and leave you unequipped to deal with the next day. And you'll feel miserable. As I can attest from once being one of those people, when I was launching a big project and let the work dictate my entire life, you will eventually hit a wall and in the end you will lose more than you sought to gain. Your bed should be for sleep, at a reasonable time, never for work. Keeping sleep space and bedtime separate from work is extremely important for good mental and physical health.
I'll say it again, it's about finding the right mix of activities and sticking to a schedule. A routine isn't a routine if you're not consistent. But routine can eventually get stale and boring, so when that happens, change it up a bit so it's something you actually look forward to, rather than see as yet another job. Good luck, and feel free to share any of your tips for staying sane when working from home!