Does this sound familiar? You’re at a gathering and someone mentions that they’ll contact you at your office. You explain that you work from home, and they say something like, “You’re so lucky you can work from home. Must be so relaxing to be able to work in your pajamas and set your own hours!” True, but if only they knew that on some days, relaxing isn’t a word in your vocabulary. Stressed, tired, cranky, overwhelmed and irritable are more appropriate.
Most of us wouldn’t give up our web-working lifestyles for anything. But make no mistake, stress-free it is not. Not unless you’re a web worker who works 20 hours a week with tons of money in the bank and a maid and/or nanny on staff. For the rest of us, we typically work longer hours and while our stress is different than those who are cubicle-bound, it is no less dangerous if left unchecked.
Here are some tips to keep your sanity, and your income, under control when life is in overload and there are deadlines to be met.
Stress not only hurts your productivity, it could make a difference in your health. According to WebMD, 43% of all adults suffer adverse health affects from stress. Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, or arthritis in addition to depression and anxiety.
Sure, you know you should get 8 hours of sleep a night, work less, exercise more and take vacations. But we worker longer, crazier hours. When there’s work to do, and you’re the only one to do it, sometimes you just need to get through the next few hours and get the job done.
Change your view. If you’re finding yourself to be irritable and unfocused sitting at your desk, and you can’t walk away from work completely, then walk away and take the work with you. Relocate to a different room in the house. Work outside if the weather permits (and your wifi is strong enough). Work from a coffee shop. A change in scenery can be what it takes to get the project done right.
Choose background noise carefully. If you normally listen to podcasts in the background, and you’re feeling overwhelmed, switch to instrumental or ambient music if you find that soothing. Or turn background noise off completely. Put on headphones, but don’t listen to anything. The lack of auditory input may help you focus and think clearly.
Eat and sleep well. When we’re stressed, we tend to go to extremes here. Mindless nibbling and overeating, or we forget to eat completely. No matter how tight your deadline, be sure to take lunch break and dinner breaks, preferably away from the computer. We have some tips for how to eat well while web working. Read a mindless magazine while you do it, or call a friend to talk about anything but work. You may not be able to sleep a full 8 hours a night, but make sure the sleep you do get is quality “zzzz”s. Lifehack.org has some tips for getting to sleep quickly, especiall effective when you’re stressed.
Be prepared to switch directions. How often have you struggled for hours on an idea that just wasn’t working? Stop that. Often if you’re struggling, it’s because you’re heading down the wrong path. Breathe. Back up. Start over? The second, or third, idea just may be the one that flows naturally and easily and saves you stress and time in the long run.
Keep your work and home separate. Easier said than done when there are dishes to do, PTA meetings to attend and homework to supervise, laundry that needs folding, appliances that need fixing and other assorted tasks to be accomplished around the house and your space is tight. Set up your office so you block as much of that out as you can. Work time is work time. When you’re under a deadline crunch, act as if you drove to the office. Don’t let any home stresses get in the way unless they’re true emergencies. Close your office door if you have to. Organize your home office for productivity, storing work-related supplies separate from home supplies. Make sure what you need is easily accessible.
Take advantage of the comforts of home when you need to. You may not have the time for a long bath, but a 15 minute shower can make a big difference. I can be stuck on a problem for hours, and the answer will just come to me while I’m standing under that water. Keep a notebook handy in the bathroom if you’re like me and you do your best thinking in the shower. You don’t want to forget that brilliant idea by the time you dry off and make it back to your desk. If you’re a napper, do it. Lie down and get 30 minutes of shut eye. You’ll be more focused when you wake up. This isn’t me by a long shot, but if you’re the type who finds cleaning to be relaxing, then do that. But if cleaning is just another chore that’s stressing you out on your already stuffed to-do list, put it out of your mind. Save it for when you are focused on home time.
Exercise. It’s well known that exercise relieves stress. It doesn’t have to mean an hour at the gym. Just get up, get the mail and walk around the block for a few minutes. Even 10-15 minutes of activity and fresh air can make a difference.
Be realistic about your time. We often fall behind when we don’t allow enough time to complete our tasks before expecting that we should be moving on to the next one. We may think it takes an hour to edit a page, but if the reality is closer to two hours, you’ll find your stress building up as your day gets longer. Use a time tracking program such as SlimTimer to help you figure out how long you really need to do what you do. Then you can plan your days accordingly, with appropriate gaps for those emergencies that always come up.
Meditate. When you start feeling like your accelerator pedal is on the floor but your wheels are just spinning up black smoke, turn off the entire world and focus on your breathing and relaxation. Do it right there at your desk. Here’s a simple routine that’s quite effective.
Minimize input. If on a “normal” day you can handle getting email, IMs, cell and landline phone calls and stay sane and productive, great. But if you know you’re approaching overload, don’t be afraid to temporarily shut down what doesn’t need to be on. Turn off your IM program until you get tasks off your plate. Let phone calls go to voice mail. You are better off dealing with the added responsibilities later than to take them on now and make stupid mistakes or worse, have the stress allow something to come out of your mouth that you’ll regret later. Use software like WriteRoom (OS X) to block out all but the writing task at hand. Set an alarm to alert you to your next appointment, but then hide the clock from your menu or task bar. Don’t think about the next action. Commit to giving the task at hand your full attention.
Smile. The house is a mess, you have projects that are due, bills to pay, meetings to attend and you just want to explode in frustration. What should you do? Be happy. You don’t want to sound insincere, but try smiling while you’re on the phone. Smile while you type that email or IM. Before you know it, you may actually feel the way you’re acting.
Be prompt. Yes, you’re up against a tight deadline and have a lot of pressure to deal with. Worrying about getting where you’re going isn’t going to help. Use the procrastinator’s clock if need be. Dial into conference calls 2 minutes early, instead of 2 minutes late. If you walk/call into your meetings late and frazzled, you’ll find it that much more difficult to settle down and focus on the meeting.
Hit “save” before you hit “send.” When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to react in the heat of the moment. Save emails to draft before hitting “send.” Do something else. Take that shower, go for a walk, meditate. Calm down and then make sure it’s still what you want to say 20 minutes later.
Say no. What’s that saying? If you want something done, ask a busy person. As a web worker, you’re more likely to be the PTA or Church’s first thought when they need a volunteer for a project. You’re the one your friends and family call when they need tech help, since you’ve been your own “IT guy” for quite some time. Prioritize your to-do list. If the activity is going to take time that you really don’t have, don’t agree to do it. Offer to do a less time-intensive task, or defer it completely until after the immediate crisis has past.
Ask for help. If you’re alone, can anyone hear you scream? Your co-workers won’t know that you’re overworked unless you tell them. Ask a relative to help you with childcare. Delegate tasks to others. You won’t know what you don’t have to do yourself until you ask someone else to do it.
What’s your sure-fire, make-it-through-the-next-crazy-moment tip when you realize that working from home isn’t all about being barefoot and mellow? Take a breather and share in the comments.