Working remotely is a wonderful thing. It allows you to work when it's best for your schedule, giving your teammates and company the chance to have your best work. It also lets you call your own shots, leaving you more creative, happier, and healthier (hello no germs spreading around an office!).
But there is a tendency to work more while working remotely. When your home is your office, it's hard to put separation between your work life and personal life. Though total control is great, not being able to pull yourself away from work can more easily lead to burnout.
When you're part of a distributed team, what's the best way to cope and balance the great aspects about remote working with the sometimes-not-so-great parts? We posed that question to 22 members of remote teams around the world. Here's their responses, with actionable ways to help you not get burned out while working remotely. And even if you work in a traditional, on-site team, you'll likely find tips here to help you keep balance in today's mobile-first, always connected world.
The best thing I did for myself in adapting to remote work has been to create morning and evening routines. In the morning, I have a routine of a quick workout, stretching and meditation, and in the afternoon/evening I take the dogs on a walk and then work on my Spanish. The routines change a bit based on the season (in the summer there's a lot more gardening), but it actually doesn't matter so much what they include.
The main thing for me was that putting these routines in place has the effect of sort of approximating a commute time (although much nicer!) and signaling to my brain when work time is starting in the morning and ending in the evening. It can be tough as a remote worker to distinguish between work and non-work time, and these routines help me a lot.
It's definitely important to have a hard stop. There is always work to be done and you'll have to accept that it's not possible to finish all of it. If you try, you will burnout. I've done that to myself in a previous job and it's not fun and you grow easily exhausted.
I keep a hyper-set schedule. To give you a little insight into this, I was the 5 year old that would get mad at my parents when they told me that there was no schedule for the day while we were on vacation. That has kind of—er—persisted through my life, much to the chagrin of my husband and friends. It sounds counterintuitive, but having a set schedule means that I stick to it rather than having the propensity of most other remote workers to not maintain balance between home life and work life. So, I wake up at 8:30, make coffee and breakfast for my husband, walk my dog, and then work. At 12ish everyday, I either nap with my dog or take a walk and eat depending if I'm hungry. I finish at about 5:30 everyday, unless I have a late call or something, and then do the same thing most nights. I always make sure to shut off my computer and not turn it back on until going back to work the next day.
I've heard statistics somewhere that when you work remotely because there are so few distractions for you (if you're of a certain personality type, that is, which I would argue you need to be if you're going to work remotely), you get a ton more work done than you would if you were in an office. I use this as a kind of justification in my crazy brain to keep to this set schedule. My home is my safe place, and I need to respect and honor it just as I try to do my own sanity by keeping a schedule, and making sure that I don't get into the habit of burning that midnight oil.
I've worked remotely from my house now for 7 years and the one thing that I try to do consistently—and sometimes it's really hard—is keep office hours (between 8 and 6). It has kept me disciplined and over time my colleagues have been able to learn what my hours are, too. This is important for me because I like to try and get involved in collaboration projects as much as possible. It pushes the communication both ways more—and it's also more noticeable when teammates start heading home at the end of the day.
There are times though, when working on projects alone can't be avoided and when I'm in that situation, I make sure I get outside at lunchtime, see people, plan my tasks to keep to the hours and check in with the office often. I even have my monitor dim slightly using the software f.lux to let me know it's getting late in the day and to think about finishing up.
I've recently moved further down the east coast of Scotland, too, so I try and take regular 5 minute breaks just to stand up and look out the window at the sort-of sea view.
"My home is my safe place, and I need to respect and honor it just as I try to do my own sanity by keeping a schedule."
For myself, keeping my mind and spirits in tip top shape has everything to do with establishing a routine. I'm an early riser, so I get up at 5:30am every day, work 90 minutes, take an hour to run for a few miles and eat breakfast, then tackle the day. I also find it extremely important to have a natural end to my day, which for me is preparing dinner. I use meal delivery service Blue Apron to bring me ingredients to cook for myself or friends, and know that I have to end my day and take care of myself in a healthful manner by cooking.
I do my absolute best to hold steadfast to this routine whether I'm at home or on the road. Tasks get done under those constraints, and I'm putting a large importance on my own well being.
In the early days of Popforms, I used to work all the time. In the morning, I would grab my laptop and pull it into bed with me, and dive into email almost as soon as I woke up. I'd work all day, sometimes forgetting to change out of pajamas, and then I'd be curled up with the computer, writing blog posts, back in bed at night. It was bad.
Not surprisingly, I got pretty burnt out doing that. I was working every day of the week, unhappy, never feeling done, and focusing more on quantity than quality. But I figured if I was working all day, I must be pretty important and doing pretty important things, right?
Then one day I realized the work was never going to stop. There is always more to do, and when you work remotely, there is no one to tell you to go home or that the office is closing, so it has to be YOU who decides when to stop. You have to decide that the rest of your life is worth making space for, and not let work take over that time.
When I decided to cut back my working hours (I don't check email after 6 p.m., I don't work weekends, I don't bring my computer to bed), it made me focus on quality over quantity. I had to make sure I was maximizing my 7-8 working hours, instead of just aimlessly moving from task to task over 12-14 hours a day, or being overly reactive to small fires and delaying more important work.
I worked with my cofounder to define the most important priorities for my role, so that when 5 p.m. rolls around I can ask myself, 'Have I done the most important work I could do today?' And when I can say yes to that, then I can log off, recharge, and invest in the other areas of my life. That is what makes it possible for me to keep working without getting burnt out.
I think things like 'motivation,' 'procrastination' and 'burnout' are all kind of intertwined and burnout, to me, is essentially the sum of choosing to work on the wrong things for too long. We're naturally motivated by successful feedback loops, and you get burned out when that feedback loops gets broken over and over again for too long.
Show up, work on things that move the needle and you'll be fine.
"Like your grocery list, most things can wait until tomorrow. Set aside time for work and rest."
The feeling creeps up and the next thing you know you're answering your first email at 6:45 am and replying to another one at 9:15 pm.
Burnout is real. Don't fight it. You can't win.
A great analogy that I've found useful is to think of work as grocery shopping. You don't drop everything and go out to the store the instant you're running low on cookies. If you did, you would waste a lot of time and energy.
You make a list, find time to go to the store, and stock up all at once. But with work, we're constantly plugged in, always checking email, and dropping everything when we don't have to.
Like your grocery list, most things can wait until tomorrow. Set aside time for work and rest. Do nothing. And don't feel guilty about it. Your mind will reward you later.
I am most vulnerable to burnout when I lose track of what's important in my work. It's hard to say no to tasks or opportunities and stay focused on what is really valuable in my work. I start to take on little extra tasks and projects that I think are important, but are just distractions. Before I know it I am spinning a bunch of plates and the quality of my work and my life start to suffer. Days where I jump between different tasks, projects and emails leave me feeling exhausted and stressed.
There's a couple of things I do to refocus:
Getting refocused always seems to reduce my stress and burnout. I feel fulfilled and energized on days when I singularly focus on a single task.
Before working on Acuity full time, I worked for a government agency in a classified environment. One nice side effect was that it was almost impossible to bring work home with you (absolutely no quick checking e-mails on your phone!). Burnout definitely happened there, but it was more obvious because you would be physically at work too much.
During that time I worked on Acuity part time, so I'd squeeze in work on it whenever I had a free moment. That definitely formed some bad habits I'm still trying to break. Now that I'm full time on Acuity there's no need to squeeze in work when I can, but it's still a habit to check e-mails when I can, or whenever I have an idea to test it out.
When I was working on Acuity part time, limited time was a forcing factor. I had plenty of ideas and when I was finally able to implement them, they were full formed in my mind and my execution was efficient. Now with more time there's less of a need of efficiency, so it's easy to run with a less mature idea, only to find time wasted, or spend time ruminating on and researching things which really don't benefit the core of my business.
My feeling is that having fewer constraints on my time is leading to more overwork, and more burnout.
The remote worker's greatest challenge might be herself/himself. While one of the best benefits of working remotely is flexibility, that can turn into too much pliancy over where work ends and life begins.
When I first started working remotely, I reverted to a college night-owl schedule, where I was getting up and going to sleep later than the rest of humanity—and failing to spend all that time in between in a disciplined way. So I felt like I was never getting enough done AND failing to deal with my wellbeing and everyday life. That puts you in a continuous dangerous downward-spiral that leads not just to one-time but habitual burnout.
"The remote worker's greatest challenge might be herself/himself."
When you're the decider over how you spend your hours, you also have to be more proactive about sticking to priorities and setting boundaries—that's part of your job. I find myself returning to something Marissa Mayer says about burnout (no matter the Yahoo policy for remote work) how important it is to find your rhythm and protect it to avoid burnout. For me, that rhythm means taking time to reflect and celebrate progress when planning, and setting boundaries like working outside of my apartment at a co-working space or scheduling deliberate non-work time into my week.
Set boundaries. While it's important to get work done in a timely manner, remote work doesn't mean that you absolutely need to be online or available 24/7. Also, schedule some time for relaxing/socializing and/or close, supportive relationships. Remote work offers flexibility, and I appreciate the work-life balance that comes with that.
Take a three-day weekend every now and then. Make sure to get away from everything for a week or two each year. With our team, we recognize that sometimes you just need to get away and recharge. So every three years, we give each person a thirty-day sabbatical. Regular breaks and vacations go a long way towards preventing burnout.
Split your days in two. This is pretty easy to do as a remote worker, as you can work from different locations in the morning and afternoon. Having a nice walk or cycle somewhere around lunch gives your mind time to work and your body some movement, which it probably needs if you've been sitting all morning ;)
Use the little moments of free time throughout the day to your advantage—do some jumping jacks, walk outside, meditate. It helps break my days into smaller, more manageable bits and makes me feel more productive.
To me, burn-out is when I have particularly low energy. It's happened a few times. The best way I've found isn't to fight it, or force yourself to work on something productive. Rather, switch gears and do something active for a few hours. Go outside, walk, go do an errand. Seems to help a lot when you finally get back in front of a machine.
Get outside when it's nice. Do your laundry in between answering emails so you can wholly enjoy your weekends. Enjoy your flexibility that working remotely offers, and pet your cat when you're feeling stressed.
Burnout is always tough, and I think it affects everyone from time to time. One of the hardest things about working remotely is the lack of human contact to provide a moral boost during the difficult periods. Usually burnout is a clear sign for me that it's time to get out of the house and go and spend time with real live people and unwind a little. I consider this an investment in my future productivity, rather than slacking off, which helps justify it (if only to myself).
"One of the hardest things about working remotely is the lack of human contact to provide a moral boost during the difficult periods."
Make sure to get socialization in—and have a crew you can reach out to for advice, support, celebratory high fives and face to face time.
Go talk to another human. Everyone always underestimates how much this helps. The most helpful person to speak to will be different depending on your situation, but here's some ideas to try: talk to your manager, your colleagues, your non-work friends, and your family. You really should try and cultivate friendships outside your job (and even outside your industry as a whole) if you don't already. One of the most helpful things for burnout is a change of context to distract you from your professional life's fatigue, and healthy social time with friends is unbeatable in terms of grounding you in the bigger picture.
Go out to lunch or coffee at least once a week with another freelancer [or remote worker] in the area. It's great to talk shop, vent and talk through problems and thoughts together.
One thing I think is really important especially for remote workers is to have a local social life. Have friends, colleagues or family that you can hangout with. Otherwise you'll get no social interaction ever and will quickly burn out from work even if the work is fun.
Campaign Monitor's Mercer perfectly summed up the working from home life in her answer. "Hobbies are super helpful to distract you from the feeling that because you work from home that home always has to mean work," she says.
Home doesn't always have to mean work, and those other things we love to do in life outside of our work help keep work in one corner of our lives, and let our other interests and hobbies share that same space. If we establish a routine, manage and respect our time, spend time with people outside of work, and take breaks—such as dedicating time to hobbies (mine is beer making!)—remote working can be an extremely fulfilling way to live. Burnout is something we don't have to let happen if we're mindful and take care of ourselves.
We couldn't have written a book on remote work—or had success building our own remote team—without the advice of other teams who have shared how remote work worked for them. In the last chapter, you'll find links to the very best resources about remote work from distributed teams around the world.
Written by Zapier community caretaker Alison Groves
Image Credits: Match photo courtesy Ana via Flickr. Remote photos courtesy respective individuals.
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A Special Thanks To Those Who Share: The Best Blog Posts, Articles and Resources on Remote Work
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