Avoiding Remote Office Burnout

For many, working from home is a dream come true, or a goal to strive for. Those of us lucky enough to achieve the dream work from the comfort and convenience of our own homes. While others spend twenty, thirty or even forty minutes commuting, we simply walk from Room A to Room B. We enjoy meals in our own kitchens, sit on our own furniture and take a break to pet the dog whenever the mood strikes. How can one possibly burn out on such an enviable arrangement?

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Remote office burnout threatens even the happiest of us. Consider the unshaven worker who looks up from his laptop to realize, “I haven’t left this house for two weeks.” Or worse, the temptation to work more hours, since it’s so easy and convenient to do so. A few weeks of 18-hour days will leave even the most dedicated person burned out.

Fortunately, there are many easy, effective things you can do to avoid burnout. Let’s get started with avoiding remote office burnout.

Take frequent breaks

You’re lucky enough to work from home; take advantage of the perks. Prepare a lunch that you really enjoy. Walk the dog. Work from that coffee shop that you love so much. Meet a friend for lunch. I’m not saying you should shirk your duties just because you’re home. But you ought to take advantage of the perks that many cubicle-bound employees dream of.

One thing you should definitely embrace is breaks. Short or long, time spent away from the task at hand gives you time to process what you’re working on and have ideas (think of all the great ideas you’ve had in the shower). There are a few ways to build break times into your work day.

One method is to formalize the process. The famed Pomodoro Technique teaches practitioners to alternate between timed periods of work (usually around 20-25 minutes) and break periods. The first three breaks are five minutes long, followed by a 15-minute rest. After that the process repeats. It’s effective for those who embrace routine as well the more “attention challenged.” For example, when the temptation to browse YouTube hits, you know there’s a break time during which that will be appropriate right around the corner.

Another way to work a break time into your day is to split it into two. For example, spend the morning working from home, and after lunch, transition to a cafe, local library, co-working space or similar location. The drive serves as a great break from the day’s duties.

But don’t take my word for it. A study conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011 demonstrated that “…even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.”

Get some exercise

Research conducted by University of Georgia in 2008 suggests that regular exercise can make you feel more energized within a few weeks, while effects on your mood are immediate. You don’t need a costly gym membership to reap these rewards, either. A simple walk outdoors for 30 minutes a day encompasses many of the burnout-busters I’ll discussed in this article.

First, it’s a break from the grind, which gives you brain time to process input, like that new design you’re working on, that lengthy article or the newest problem that just seems so daunting. The link between physical activity and cognitive health has been demonstrated scientifically.  

A stroll on your own terms is a perk of working from home, and I’ll encourage you not to overlook those. Finally, when part of a daily schedule, including consistent work hours, exercise becomes even more powerful.

Set work hours and follow them religiously

“I’ll just pop over to my desk and check email for a minute.”

“I can work on this tonight after the kids go to bed.”

“I’ll finish this on Saturday.”

Sound familiar? I’ve said all of these things to myself many times. Ultimately, they lead to my being overworked, overtired and stressed out. An office-bound worker has a clear start and stop time to his or her day, and you should, too. While it’s tempting to pull an all-nighter, try to avoid the temptation. Even a “five minute” email check can swell to 20 minutes with ease.

It’s not always easy to be strict with yourself in this manner. For years I’d work while my kids were at school and once they got home, either: 1) work and feel guilty that I wasn’t in “dad mode” or 2) spend time with the kids, resentful that I wasn’t working. Today, I tell myself that the work day ends at 3:00 PM and that’s that. This decision forced me to devise a routine for the hours I have to myself and really enjoy family time.

Sticking to set work hours also fosters good working habits with clients and/or coworkers. The first time you immediately respond to a last-second, after-hours request, you set a precedent that your time is really their time. Yes, emergencies happen and sometimes these extra hours are inevitable. I get that. Just convey to all involved that that’s the exception, not the rule.

Make time for human interaction

Remember the worker I mentioned who was lamenting his home-bound predicament? Don’t let this be you. Many home-workers are introverted on some level. I’ve enjoyed working from home all these years because I actually enjoy the quiet of an empty house. It helps me concentrate, focus and be productive.

But too much of a good thing, isn’t.

A few years ago I began getting together with like-minded home workers once every two weeks. I grew to love the opportunity to talk with compatriots, share stories and strategies for doing what we do. Years later we get together (more regularly) and I find those gatherings just as beneficial as they’ve ever been.

This is especially effective when dealing with burnout. A great way to escape the dreaded state is to get a moral boost from others. A good conversation with someone who has “been there” can go a long way. You can vent, work through problems together or act as a sounding board for ideas.

You’re among the lucky few. You work from home. With a little effort and planning, you’ll continue to do so — happily — for years to come.