The freedom to wear sweatpants all day, set your own hours, and take phone calls from your couch makes working remotely sound fabulous. And that might be why a whopping 64 million Americans now do so at least part-time—an 80 percent increase since 2005. But as more U.S. companies give employees the freedom to “WFH” (work from home), many people, myself included, have discovered challenges that traditional employees don’t have.
The biggest benefit of working remotely is the added control over how, where, and when you work. It’s no surprise that remote workers are more productive and satisfied than traditional employees. Studies also show that skipping the office—and an unhealthy commute—reduces stress.
But the same technology that enables our remote lifestyle—like 24/7 access to email—can blur the boundary between personal and professional life, causing telecommuters to end up working five to seven hours more per week than their office-bound counterparts, according to one study.
I’ve worked from Vienna for the last two years for Lantern, a mental health startup based in San Francisco. Working 6,000 miles away during different hours than my coworkers has forced me to learn how to develop a happy and healthy work-life balance. Here’s how I accomplish it—my tips could help you too.
1. Clearly define what work means.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but hear me out. Just like your bed should only be used for sex and sleep, your daily allotted working time should only be used for work. Work falls into three categories: A specific project you’re completing for your boss or a client Networking to generate more work or meet new clients Professional development Additionally, I suggest making a list—and posting it next to your desk—of a few activities or goals you can always turn to so you don’t waste time if you’re having a slow day or finish a project early. This could be staying up to date on industry news, getting more active on LinkedIn or another relevant social network, or checking in with past clients.
2. Visually define your workspace.
I work from a standing desk in the corner of my dining room. When I’m there, I’m in work mode—and I make sure not to work on anything personal in that space. Even if you live in a tiny studio, it’s important to find a visual cue that tells you it’s time be productive. For instance, you could put a desk mat and mouse on your dining table to transform it. Or try sitting on the opposite side of a table than you normally do. You’ll train yourself to associate that different view with work. If you use the same computer for work and personal use, close all applications and turn off work email and chat notifications at the end of your work day. Same goes for your phone: Customize your settings to turn off notifications after a certain time each day.
3. Get out of the house.
Supplement your lack of in-person chatting at work by finding a community: Joining a coworking space or making your favorite coffee shop your second home can kick a midday slump. You’ll feel less isolated by getting some of the same social signals that people get in the workplace, such as saying hello or getting a smile.
4. Stick to a daily schedule.
Even though your schedule might be flexible, it’ll make you feel grounded to create a routine.If you’ve ever felt like your work just expands to fill the time available, you’re already familiar with the adage called Parkinson’s law. Giving yourself a constrained amount of time for each task forces you to be more efficient, which in turn makes you feel satisfied with the job you’ve done.Try to dedicate eight hours a day to work in order to be as productive as your in-office peers. Consider arranging a typical day like so: If your roommate leaves for work at 8 a.m., leave for a coffee shop at the same time—even if you want to sleep in. Structure the rest of your day at home, and if you wrap up your client work early, remember the other two types of work: networking and professional development.Lastly, make a commitment to meet a friend for dinner or attend a yoga class at the end of the day to create external accountability and not allow work to bleed into your night. If you don’t have a date lined up, leave the house and take a walk around the block as a mental signal that your work day is finished.
5. And don’t forget to include strategic breaks.
This may sound counter to everything just said, but non-work time is key and should be treated with the importance of a normal meeting. Take advantage of your daily energy lull, which is around 3 p.m. for most, and put a defined amount of time on your calendar to run errands or exercise. Research shows that a short break at least once an hour will help you maintain your focus.To stay most productive, try time-blocking your day by scheduling priorities in defined time periods. This will keep you from task switching, which can lower your productivity by 40 percent. At the end of each project (if it’s a big project find natural stopping points), take a 15-minute break so you feel re-energized and ready to switch to the next task.There is one exception. Some experts believe that if you’re really on a roll, you shouldn’t take a break just because the clock says it’s time. Working over an extended period can be invigorating—if it’s your choice.
6. Meet people face-to-face daily.
One-on-one conversations matter to your emotional and physical health(seriously, they may even keep you from catching a cold). Conversations keep you feeling socially connected and engaged with life outside work. But interacting with others can make some nervous.As an expat who doesn’t speak the local language, I look for events, groups, and volunteer gigs that relate to something I’m interested in. It could be a cooking class, a lecture followed by a reception, or even a professional group meeting (I’m a member of Impact Hub and also mentor entrepreneurs). These types of settings where the attendees have a common interest provide plenty of material and focus for conversations. It may take time to find the group or event that’s right for you, but keep trying—even a quick convo will benefit you.When all else fails, run an errand where you have the opportunity to speak with someone. Ask for a recommendation at a local wine shop or for a new book at your library. It’s not as beneficial as making a personal connection, but it’s a good alternative.
7. Keep in touch with friends and family.
Sometimes the best cure for loneliness is just calling mom. If you’re working in a separate city from close friends or family, a phone call (or Skype date) can be a great way to make you feel connected again. Put your call on your calendar—take it just as seriously as you would a work meeting. Be ready to be as engaged as possible during the conversation, not distracted by walking around or making dinner. Quality is more important than quantity to reap the benefits of these one-on-one conversations.
8. Learn something new.
If you’re not getting the in-person feedback on your work that you crave, you can supplement that with personal achievements. Pick up a new hobby in order to feel like you’re making progress. You’ll boost your self-efficacy and supplement the lack of professional feedback with personal feedback (as in, getting to see improvements week-to-week). That added confidence will spill over into your work-life. And don’t feel like you have to pick a hobby that you’ll do perfectly. Being a beginner is an important counterpoint to striving for perfection. A few years ago, I joined a triathlon team. I’d never swam laps or biked longer than a few miles. After months of training, I finished my first triathlon. My body has never been so tired, but I’ve also never been so proud of myself for finishing something outside my comfort zone.