How to reinvent your work routines to beat the blues
This post originally appeared in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe now.
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.
That’s an excerpt from last week’s Wall Street Journal story, How I Stayed Healthy While Working From Home.
As soon as I read it, I thought: What a great idea! I should totally do that!
Then I remembered: I did do that — as recently as February, when I first drafted this article.
Good habits are made to be broken
The truth is, making a healthy work-from-home habit is only half the challenge: the other half is sticking with it. I was consistent about walking during my work calls for years, but just nine months after writing that story, I had slipped into a period of inactivity that left me feeling kind of blah.
That’s because any constructive, sustainable work routine takes ongoing maintenance. When you’re at the office, someone else creates a lot of that maintenance structure for you: From the working hours that structure your days to the suddenly deserted office that reminds you to break for lunch, the workplace does a pretty good job of reminding us to do things like stand up, walk around or see other humans. Your gym resolve might fail, but if the washroom is on the opposite side of the office floor, human biology will ensure you get in a certain number of steps every day.
When you work from home, you have to create these maintenance structures for yourself. When I first started working remotely, nearly twenty-five years ago, it took me many months before I realized I had to create some self-care structures, and every time I returned to working remotely after a few years in an office job, I had to invent those structures all over again.
But this is now my longest stretch of remote work, ever: It’s been more than eight years since I last had a regular office job. That was long enough for me to descend into neglect, commit to a rigorous self-care routine, get healthier than I’ve been in my whole life…and then start to get a little careless again.
Time for a tune-up
I didn’t recognize how much my self-care habits had eroded until I read the story I wrote earlier this year, along with another piece that ran in last week’s Workplace Report, In Praise of Working In Bed. Now that I have a self-contained office, I spend more time at my desk and less under the covers…even though everything I wrote about bed work still rings true:
I know it sounds unprofessional to write corporate reports or take meetings while snuggled in a duvet, but the lack of professionalism is a big part of why working in bed works for me. I mean, bed feels like the antithesis of work: If I’m in bed, then I’m not really working — I’m relaxing! This deep, subconscious association means that no matter how tedious or stressful the task, it immediately feels less tedious or stressful if I tackle it in bed. Even if I’m not working in bed on a given day — typically because I want to use the giant monitor at my actual desk — I’ll relocate to the bedroom if I hit a roadblock, feel discouraged, or just feel like a little bit of pampering would perk me up and give me a fresh burst of energy.
Bed working was one of the habits that has long worked for me — along with some of the other practices I recommend in my How I Stay Healthy piece, like pre-packing snacks, shifting my schedule to get more time apart from my family, and making 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.
All of these habits have eroded over the past year, as I’ve moved past the fun of inventing my pre- and mid-pandemic work routines, and into the way less exciting phase of maintenance.
Keep a care log
I’m lucky that I had something like a time capsule from my healthier self: a list of all the constructive habits I sustained as recently as one year ago. (And once I thought to look, I found even more ideas in the pages of Remote, Inc.)
Now that I realize how easy it is to drift away from even the happiest, most ingrained habits, I’m making a list of all the routines that have worked well for me over the years — so I can check in regularly and see whether I’m keeping up with self-care.
There are some habits I’m ready to retire: I made a huge, low-carb breakfast scramble every week for four years, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to skip breakfast. But four years of eating the same breakfast 360 days a year turned out to be enough, so I’ve got a new daily routine. (Yogurt, nuts, seeds and raspberries, a.k.a. “keto granola”.)
But plenty of valuable habits simply fell by the wayside during a childcare crunch, or the transition out of Covid solitude, or during a period of professional overload. Each of those situations was temporary, but once life returned to something like normal, I forgot to return to the habits I had set aside.
Reviewing my care log let me identify the habits I’m happy to let go, the habits I’ve successfully updated, and the habits I need to revive to or reinvent.
Audit your habit gaps
As soon as I started reflecting on the self-care habits I truly missed, my behavior started to shift. I renewed a standing date that I’d let slide. I started tackling meal prep earlier in the day. I actually wore an underwire bra three times in one week! (See the WSJ bullet, “Stop wearing sweats,” for why this matters.)
I also had a few useful epiphanies. I’d drifted away from my early-morning schedule (the one that buys me time away from family) during daylight savings time; I took the shift back to standard time as an opportunity to renew my commitment to Alex-only morning hours.
As for the walking meetings? They were a casualty of my phone connection: I’ve had so many calls glitch and drop that I’ve become nervous about walking around the neighborhood during meetings, because it usually interrupts the call. Recognizing this as a potentially solvable issue made all the difference: I went right out and bought a new phone, which has solved the problem. (I know my geek friends will protest that this was far more likely to be a service issue than a hardware issue, so let me note that I hurl my phone to the sidewalk so often that I think years of abuse had damaged the internal antenna.)
Build a habit of habit-forming
Not every fix is as straightforward (or expensive) as a new iPhone, but I don’t need to fix everything at once! It took me many years to develop and refine most of my longstanding work-from-home routines, and now I realize that’s a central and permanent piece of my remote job: developing and sustaining healthy habits.
Keeping a log of my self-care practices is going to be one of those habits, along with reviewing that log regularly to note where I’m drifting.
Another habit? Picking new self-care habits I want to work on, because it’s been enormously rewarding to pick up so many healthy routines over the past few years, like knitting, tidying up, and eating keto.
I don’t know what habit I’ll pick up next, but one thing I do know: Remote work is what gives me the room to pick the habits that improve my whole life, and treat working on those habits as a core part of my job.
This post originally appeared in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe now.