When I returned to remote work seven years ago, I was excited about all the ways working from home could improve my well-being. I’d have time to go to the gym; to make healthy dinners for the whole family; to get a good night’s sleep each and every night.
What actually happened: My baseline level of activity dwindled to zero, I ate at restaurants even more often just to get a break from the solitude of home, I gained 40 pounds, and I ended up tossing and turning at bedtime.
After a couple of years of decline, I started to feel bad enough—physically and mentally—that I decided it was time to put as much attention into my remote-work self-care as I had put into my remote-work productivity. There are three main sets of strategies that worked for me, which I often recommend to other remote and hybrid workers.
Once I got the opportunity to go days without leaving the house, it was easy to become so sedentary that it made me anxious and somewhat depressed. Here’s how to avoid that scenario:
• Combine meeting and walking. If you don’t need to be on camera, or need to take only minimal notes, go for a walk during the call. I’ve found that these meetings often allow me to be more creative—and make a stronger personal connection—than what happens on a video call, perhaps because it is easier to focus on the substance of a conversation without the distractions of screen sharing or on-screen appearance.
• Find a mobile co-worker. I have a longtime colleague whom I’ve gone for walks with throughout Covid. When I hit a conceptual bottleneck with a project, I save it for one of our walks, and troubleshoot while we walk—the combination of movement and conversation makes for creative problem-solving.
• Keep your camera off. If you don’t have to be on camera for a video call, don’t be. That way you can stay on your feet, do some light housework or dishes, and avoid being too sedentary.
• Cap your don’t-leave-the-house days. I’ll admit it: I am an incorrigible homebody. I can happily go days at a time without so much as crossing the threshold to the outside world. (My personal record is eight days.) But even I get stir crazy at a certain point, so I’ve set myself a rule: I’m allowed to have only one don’t-leave-the-house day each week. Every other day, I make sure that at the very least, I get out for a dog walk.
Eat like an Olympian
I never thought of the office as a diet plan—until I returned to working from home, and rediscovered the perils of being just steps from the kitchen. I now think of food the way I would if I were training for the Olympics: not just as a source of pleasure, but as fuel for my productivity and performance. To that end...
• Create speed bumps to snacking. When I worked at an office, it was inconvenient to get a snack: I’d have to go all the way down to the lobby and buy something from the store. I’ve learned to create comparable speed bumps to daytime snacking at home: I try to keep the most effortless snacks (like nuts) in slightly inconvenient locations (like a high cupboard).
• Prepare duplicate meals. While it is helpful to have speed bumps that inhibit snacking, it is just as important to make healthful, balanced meals even easier—otherwise I can find myself skipping breakfast in favor of early-morning email check-ins or eating a bag of protein chips for lunch. I make a gigantic scrambled-egg dish every weekend, so I can quickly heat up a healthy breakfast in just a few minutes each morning. And I have the same meat, cheese and celery lunch every day, so that I keep my portions consistent and prep time minimal.
• Start dinner at 3. I’ve embraced one privilege of working from home: I no longer have to wait for the end of the workday to get started on dinner. I’ll often take a 15-minute break at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so I can get a healthy dinner under way. Starting healthy meals in the afternoons has helped me cut down on how often we order delivery hamburgers because I’m too tired to think of anything else.
• Prepack your snacks. Portioning out my favorite snacks—like my beloved macadamia nuts—has proved helpful in keeping my midday snacks to a volume that perks me up instead of leaving me stuffed and logy.
As many people have discovered over the past two years, remote work can take a toll on your mental health. Here’s how I cope:
• Make standing dates. One handy thing about office work? It pretty much guarantees human contact. When you’re working from home, it is easy to slip into isolation. The most efficient way of ensuring regular human interaction is to organize standing dates. I meet up with one colleague for a weekly dog walk and brainstorm; another I connect with most mornings for a casual phone call while we do our stretches and floor exercises.
• Escape from your family. When you can’t escape into a space apart from your family, try escaping into a different time. I’ve always been a night owl like my husband, but I have embraced a new life as an early riser now that the whole family works or learns from home. Waking up (and going to sleep) a couple of hours before the rest of the family means I have a window to myself, each and every day.
• Stop wearing sweats. When I first returned to working from home, I embraced a uniform of leggings and tunics, or sweatpants and T-shirts. But my casual attire quickly became demoralizing: It is hard to feel like a powerhouse when you’re dressed like a gym rat. I feel and work my best when I wear clothing that is as comfortable as possible but also offers me some kind of aesthetic boost.
The most important change you can make for your remote-work days isn’t limited to any one exercise, eating or mental-health habit. The key is to see yourself as your own in-house HR wellness manager: the person whose job is to look out for the well-being of your home-office workforce. That is to say, you.
Dr. Samuel is a technology researcher and co-author of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.