Working From Home In A Global Crisis: Rules for Mental Health & Design-Productivity

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people around the world to work from home. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever worked from home. And they are finding it more challenging than they predicted, especially during a global crisis.

It’s especially tough for creatives, who are by nature more sensitive to their surroundings and more than half of whom struggle with mental health.

For me personally, this crisis is not worse than a 3-month stretch in 2018 where I lost my job, my girlfriend, my mother died, I became estranged from most of my family, followed by historic wildfires that left you no choice but to stay in the house and not even open a window.

I worked from home for 12 months under these conditions, without a steady paycheck coming in. That time period taught me resilience and a set of tools and routines that I believe will be useful for other creatives going through hard times right now.

These rules will help whether you have a job, or whether you just got laid off.

The Rules For Staying Productive & Sane While Working From Home

Accept What Is Happening Right Now

Look, this crisis will drag on for at least another three months, probably longer. You need to accept that fact and adjust to it. Take some time-out to get accustomed to this new reality. I know it sucks, but it is what it is, and you need to deal. Most of your suffering and frustration is coming from the fact that you’re not accepting what is.

On that note, avoid reading too much news as well. Especially American news, as it’s targeted towards sensationalism rather than information. Subscribe to the New York Times daily briefings newsletter that’s really all you need. If you’re in the tech space, check out the newsletters from inside.com, they’re great.

Understand That Working From Home Is A Mental Game Of Self-Regulation

Working from home, you no longer have the benefit of being accountable to others like you are when you’re in an office. You’re mostly accountable to yourself. Sure, there are still meetings that you need to be ready for. But in the time between the meetings, often it’s just going to be you, your thoughts, and a lot of distractions all around you.

So when you’re working from home, you need to frequently self-regulate your behavior. You need to observe what you’re doing, like you’d observe someone else. It’s almost like you’re being your own parent.

This is by far the hardest part of working from home. No routine you write, no productivity technique you read about, none of that stuff will stick unless you’re able to regulate your own behavior.

Visualize Your New Routine, Write It Down, And Stick To It

When the world around you becomes unstable, how can you create stability for yourself? The answer is with a strong routine. Humans are creatures of habit, and a large component of why we are pretty happy to show up in an office is because by having to go to a location and be around other people, a routine is forced upon us externally. But now, there’s no one giving you an external routine. You need to do it yourself.

I highly recommend you get up at five in the morning. I know, designers always claim to be night owls. And for some of you that is true. But most of the highly productive creatives throughout history got up early in the morning, had a nice morning routine, worked all throughout the day, and socialized with loved ones in the evening. It also has the benefit of allowing you to stay connected to the rhythm at which the rest of the world works, which you can’t do if you go to bed at 4 AM and get up at noon.

To wake up more easily, don’t start your day with a nasty alarm sound from your smartphone. You want to ease into your day and wake up calmly. I use Philips Hue + the Sleep Cycle app. It turns on the lights in my home and wakes me up at the right time in my circadian rhythm. The app is free. You don’t need the lights to use the app, but it works really well together.

For the first hour after waking up, take it real easy. Your systems still need to boot up. Make yourself a cup of your favorite morning beverage, do some light stretches, chill a bit, and think about what you want to accomplish today. Do not check email, social media, or the news in that first hour of the day.

To stay organized throughout the day, I’ve tried a lot of different techniques, but what works best for me, is to have a 40×30 inch whiteboard with three sections labeled “today”, “tomorrow” and “later”, and filling those sections with 4X4 large Post-it’s of things I plan to do.

This system allows me a degree of flexibility that I don’t have if I just write on the whiteboard. Notice also that the “today” column is the narrowest because you will not get more than three big things done in one day.

Use the Pomodoro Technique to ensure you take breaks throughout the day. You don’t want to get stuck in your seat for 4 hours. It’s also a super useful interruption in case you get stuck on a distraction. I use the Tomato One App, but any Pomodoro app will to the job.

Give yourself three hours in the evening to decompress and prepare for the next day. Use the last hour before you go to bed for your evening routine. What I do for my evening routine is take a tablet of Melatonin, L-Theanine, and a Probiotic, then I take a shower, brush and floss my teeth, put on my anti-aging cream, and by the time I’ve done all that about 45 minutes have passed, the melatonin is kicking in, and I’m ready to fall into bed. Sometimes I’ll also do some light stretches before bed.

Avoid checking social media, email, or the news before going to bed. You don’t want to feed your mind a bunch of information and dopamine hits before bed. Ideally you would avoid screens altogether before bed, but I almost never manage to do that. Instead, I focus on consuming something light, like some silly videos on YouTube.

Create A Quiet, Comfortable Workspace

You need a place where you can work with minimal distraction and where you feel comfortable. I can’t give you too many tips here, because everyone is unique in this. I can show you mine, though:

Just make sure you get a comfortable office chair, and that your workspace is somewhat ergonomic. You can get the award-winning Herman Miller Aeron for around 400 bucks used if you live in a major city and check your local classifieds. It’s worth it, trust me. Nothing else comes close.

Set Loving Boundaries With Anyone You Live With

I don’t have kids yet so I can’t give you any tips on how to handle that. But if you live with a partner who you love, it can be very hard to find the right balance between work and giving attention to them — both because of little distracting things they might do (like coming out of the shower naked), and that you probably love them and want to spend time with them!

So sit them down and set the right expectations. Say something like: “Hey, I’m working from home now, so from around nine in the morning till six in the evening, I might be here physically, but I won’t be able to give you a whole lot of attention. And I will also need a lot of time during the day where it’s quiet and I can really focus on solving some of these problems I’m working on at work”. Any reasonable partner will be totally OK with that.

But even if they’re OK with it, you are both going to break this rule, because every day is unpredictable. So whenever you break the rule, just refocus and tell your partner a variation of, “All right my love, I need to get back to work”.

The important takeaway here is to set expectations in the beginning, and to then frequently remind each other of those expectations as you both work together and live together.

Avoid Substance Abuse

Especially in California, where you can order cannabis online and get it delivered to your house faster than a pizza, these work-from-home periods can seduce you into taking (more) drugs. Don’t do it. The worst thing you can do for your routines and your productivity, is to take substances that remove you from reality and get you stuck in your thoughts. Especially if you live alone. Do yoga, take a walk, call a friend, and also remember to drink lots of water.

Be Kind To Yourself

And lastly, be kind with yourself. This is a tough time for everyone. If you don’t manage to keep a perfect routine every single day, don’t judge yourself for it, just try to do better the next day. 

Tell me your story

How has this crisis impacted you? I want to hear from you. Tell me about it in the comments.

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