How to Stay Sane and Embrace Downtime When You're Working From Home
Are you living that #wfh life? It's a dream for many and a forced reality for others, but no matter how you got here and how long you're staying, there's a bit of an art to making remote work the productive and wonderful work life that it can be. In our series on self care for creatives, Alice Katter (@alicekatter) shares her tips on how to stay creative while working from home.
For many of us, work has become an obsession.
Boomers and Millennials in particular have learned to embrace the so-called “hustle culture” of previous generations - and being “busy” became the default answer to sum up our state of being. In this spiral of work, spending time on hobbies or taking a few hours for ourselves sounded like a waste of time.
We started the year with big plans – let’s be frank, who didn’t take at least one goal-setting IG live or manifestation workshop in Jan/Feb? – and set ourselves up for a successful 2020.
And then, a few months or weeks later, a worldwide pandemic hit us all.
Suddenly we found ourselves working from home, with our plans, events and most of our social obligations cancelled, and for many of us, work slowing down. Our pace of living decreased dramatically from one day to the next.
With the world slowing down, we were suddenly confronted with being by ourselves, gaining a new sense of how to spend time.
It made many of us start to reprioritize family, self-care, cooking (and baking bread), hobbies and mental health.
It seems like it took a pandemic to make us all stop our busy lives and take a step back and for us to truly realize where our priorities lie.
But to me, this doesn’t come as a total surprise. Over the last few years we have started to see a growing shift in priorities.
As Gallup’s How Millennials Want to Work and Live report states, millennials “are not willing to sacrifice life for work anymore. They look to companies that enable them to integrate the two.” Or as Time puts it: “today’s younger workforce is increasingly focused on the ‘life’ part of ‘work-life balance’.”
Work culture and flexibility at work are becoming increasingly important.
According to GWA, two-thirds of employees want to work from home, and about 85% of the workforce wants to telework. When surveying an audience of 5,500 job seekers in 2017, FlexJobs found that for 72% of respondents the desire for flexible work stems from wanting to have a better work-life balance.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about the hustle. Working hard on something you’re passionate about isn’t a bad thing. But if we’re always ending the day worn out, we’re sacrificing our well-being and the quality of our work.
This year, many of us have suddenly experienced an unexpected shift in the way we work. While working from home during a pandemic is totally different from “remote work” or working from home a few days per week, it gave us all a taste of what a working life outside of the office could be like.
And many will want to stick to it. A recent survey showed that 77% of employees want to continue working from home at least once a week. 16% don’t want to come back to the office at all. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen major corporations announce that they’re extending their work-from-home policies.
Now that we’re all outside of the office, we’ve been thrown into an unexpected experiment.
We are redefining what matters most to us, and rediscovering our boundaries.
But we’re also starting to realize that without the office or traditional place of work, the line between work and personal life evidently begins to blur.
It’s often hard to set boundaries, so it’s maybe no surprise that remote workers have reported they have had to work even longer hours.
If we don’t take care of ourselves, our problem-solving abilities, creativity and sanity could all take a hit.
But if done appropriately, working from home represents a big opportunity for people’s recreational time and delivers that long-overdue push to re-shape our work and office culture.
So what can we do to create a more balanced work-life that allows us to stay creative and sane whilst taking care of ourselves?
The power of downtime!
Many modern workers find it hard to take downtime. But it’s the time we spend outside of work, away from our desks, that makes us most creative and that has clear benefits for productivity, creativity, and wellness.
I’ve been working remotely for more than five years and do confess that I am a huge remote work aficionado, preaching the advantages of flexible work set-ups to friends and anyone who asks (and sometimes those who don’t).
While I usually work from co-working spaces and cafes, enjoying the change of location, the possibility and being surrounded by others, I am currently also experiencing “remote work” from a new perspective.
The thing I – under normal circumstances and pre-Covid – enjoy and value most about working remotely is the flexibility, which allows me to walk through the world with open eyes and create space for “play”. This means having the freedom to give myself time and space to learn and try new things and create a work-life in and environment that inspires me and supports creativity, as well as enabling me to work and connect with people who are keen on trying something new. To me, that is the power of working remotely. It’s the new connections I make, the things I see when going for a walk during the day, the new inspiration I get by attending or watching a talk – because that’s where you get those moments of serendipity.
The moment of clarity came to me when I went on a two-week co-working retreat in Cape Town. During the retreat, our days were usually split between half a day of working, knowledge and experience sharing, and half a day when we got out, went hiking, explored the city or went surfing. This “switching off work” had an underestimated impact on my creativity and the way I was able to focus on my bigger mission – it was where I came up with the idea of starting my new project, out of office network, a newsletter and thought-platform, exploring ideas and offering resources, tools & rituals to shape our work culture and the way we work and play today. What I experienced in Cape Town was that the more free time I gave my brain and the more activities I did that were out of my daily routine, the more it could actually work and come up with new ideas.
And there’s lots of research confirming this. Research indicates that downtime can dramatically improve mental and physical health, as well as boost productivity and creativity. Downtime is “an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.” With the right kind of distraction, we may be able to integrate more information from a wide range of brain regions in more complex ways than when the brain is consciously working through a problem.
Creating space for downtime increases productivity. Studies show that brief periods of downtime, like afternoon naps, can restore focus and energy. Tony Schwartz has written, “human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.” He proposes having a break after every 90 minutes of work to be optimally productive.
Similarly, employing downtime unleashes creativity. To feed their employees’ innovation engines, 3M introduced “15 percent time” back in 1948 – giving employees 15% downtime to explore their own projects, a practice that has since inspired many more companies such as Google.
Finally, downtime can allow us to reconnect with the world around us, inviting a sense of belonging into our lives, improving mental and physical health and our personal relationships.
One study, for example, found that employees who took time off reduced serious health issues such as coronary heart disease. Victor Lipman has written in Forbes that exercising around midday can help to reduce workplace stress.
And by taking a break from work to do joint activities with family or friends, we have the power to improve our relationships.
As all these things show, doing things outside of the normal 9-5 is key to finding contentment in our work and private life. Especially as creatives or problem-solvers, time off or spent outside of the office is one of the most valuable things we have, because that’s when we are opening ourselves up to new ideas, daydreaming and imagining!
As Albert Einstein once said: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
Coming back to our current working from home set-up – the great advantage of remote work is the flexibility it gives us in having more control over our workday. Being able to use our downtime by taking the breaks we need, going for a walk when we feel unproductive and setting up our day in a way that fits our focus allows us to lead a more active lifestyle, and can increase our health and sense of balance and belonging.
It’s key to integrate downtime into our work culture, even more so now that we are working from home. It’s a change that needs to be implemented by both thoughtful leadership and ourselves.
With a few practical tips, I want to help you stay creative and sane during this time of social distancing and make the best of your new flexible work set-up and extra time.
Remember, everyone is different, and what works for one person might not work for you. The most important thing is to get to know your own mind and body, and come up with a new way of working and living that truly works for you.
Giving your brain occasional breaks keeps you creative and sane, so don’t feel guilty about it.
Figure out when you’re most productive and creative, then notice when your mind starts to shut off or you start performing tasks just for the sake of doing them. That’s when you need a break. Set aside specific times for lunch, dinner, coffee breaks or workouts by creating an event on your calendar just to eat — no work allowed.
Set up boundaries
It is important to set aside time for ourselves and the things you need in order to stay productive, creative, and sane. Vocalize that it’s ok to take breaks and to block time in your calendar.
Try out meeting-free time periods. For example, no meetings from 12-1pm to respect people’s need for personal time for lunch or a break.
Go for a walk
Not only can it be very important for breaking up a day spent at home, but studies suggest that a walk outside “opens up the free flow of ideas”.
Whether it’s indoor or outdoor, exercising is not only good for your immune system but also helps you switch off and give your brain some rest.
You can take an online fitness class or check if your local studio offers online streaming/classes, or go for a run. If you need some extra motivation, get yourself a virtual running buddy.
Collaborate & stay connected
Feeling a sense of belonging and being connected is a basic human need. Talking and collaborating with people from different disciplines is essential to come up with new ideas and see things in a different light.
If you collaborate with different people, make sure to keep those conversations flowing.
Join, or set up, a virtual coworking session, or do a painting bonding session.For new inputs, many event organisers are providing virtual hangouts/streaming instead of their IRL events right now. Try to attend a virtual huddle, online event or facetime with a group of likeminded people.
Embrace doing nothing
Research has found that daydreaming – an inevitable effect of idleness – makes us more creative, better at problem-solving and more open to coming up with creative ideas.
Jonah Lehrer has written about the virtue of daydreaming, and notes the necessity of downtime for problem-solving, saying, “While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs.”
Expand your knowledge & learn a new skill
Now is the perfect time to expand your grey matter and take an online course or class, watch YouTube tutorials or documentaries, read those articles you’ve been bookmarking forever, or listen to a podcast you’ve subscribed to but haven’t opened yet! For an extensive list of resources, check out of office.
Start a new hobby or reactivate an old one
Extracurricular activities can be a great way to develop new skills, experiment, connect with people (even online) or decompress.
What’s the thing you’ve always wanted to do but never took the time for? What did you do as a kid that excited you and how can you re-create that today?
Alice Katter is a freelance brand consultant and community strategist with a background in psychology. She crafts strategies and creative ideas to shape and engage communities, culture and tell stories. She’s also the creator of Out Of Office, a platform providing resources + guidance to shape the way we work and play today.