Full disclosure, this was my problem when I started working from home. I would open my laptop before I’d had my breakfast and work through lunch. Then I’d either not log off before about 7pm or log off on time but then log back in later and work until midnight.
For me, the key to finding the strength to build in some boundaries and take back my home life from my work life was understanding what was driving the behaviour in the first place. When I actually sat down and thought about it, I realised there were two main issues.
My to-do list was always about two A4 pages long and seemed to stay that way no matter how many things I crossed off. This was partly due to how my role was set up and fast paced nature of the part of finance that I worked in. However it was compounded by both my department, and the company at large, being severely understaffed whilst being asked to take on more and more work, the parameters for which seemed to change daily.
Working from home meant that I was not interrupted as often as I was when in the office so I automatically got more done on the days I was at home. My brain noticed this pattern almost immediately and, truly unhelpfully, went “Oh! So this is how you fix the problem of the workload, you just work flat out whilst you’re at home”.
It felt good, at first, being able to tick off a few more things on the list. I justified doing so much unpaid overtime by telling myself it would benefit me in the long run; that I’d actually get the to-do list cleared and then I’d be able to focus on the sort of work that would enhance my career prospects.
SPOILER ALERT; that was bollocks. I was trying to fix a company wide issue at a personal level. It was never going to work. My to-do list continued to be unmanageable because of the culture of company and the understaffing situation and by spending my working-from-home days working dawn to dusk I was, in a small but significant way, masking the severity of the issue for both myself and the department.
Problem was once I’d started the treadmill it was very difficult to slow it down, never mind get off. Slowly but surely the overtime increased. I was working from home in the evenings when I’d been in the office all day, as well as when I was working from home, chasing productivity levels I could not sustain in hopes of a career enhancement I didn’t have time to properly pursue. I created my own perfect storm and the only reason it didn’t appear to be battering me was that all the extra hours kept me firmly centred in the eye of it.
Then a nasty bout of flu, in which I was barely able to frag myself to the bathroom never mind open a computer, brought everything to a shuddering halt. In the aftermath my body lurched from one set of severe health problems to another. It became clear just how much damage I’d done to myself.
I’m telling you this story not because this happens to everyone who finds working from home so easy they struggle to stop. I’m telling it because I hope this will make you sit down and think about why you feel compelled to just one more thing. Just one more. I want to make sure that if you’re going to give up your personal time you’re doing it because you want to be and not because you’ve got on this ride and now you can’t see how to get off.
I’m not saying all overtime is evil. There’s a difference between a work situation where working 24/7 wouldn’t be enough and having one or two projects that need you fling everything you’ve got at them for a limited time period. Going above and beyond for a finite amount of time is perfectly reasonable. Doing overtime as a matter of course because the company has created an ongoing problem that is nothing to do with your own ability to get through your tasks is quite another.
If you are in the latter camp and you’re finding yourself working all the hours god sends just to keep afloat it is most definitely time to pull back and take stock. Share your to-do list with your manager, explain what you can feasibly achieve each day and let them know what will have to be left until later/picked up by another team member. This is not, I know, something that many people find easy but it is important that you screw your courage to the sticking place and do it. Your mental and physical health will thank you!
2. Other people’s attitude to working from home
“Had a nice day chilling at home did you?”
“All relaxed and ready to do some proper work?”
“Bet you spent the day binge watching [insert name of current popular show]”
We’ve all met at least one person who thinks that working from home really means not working at all. That might be because they struggle to self motivate in their home environment and assume their experience is universal. It may be because they think everyone slacks off at any opportunity when they’re in the office, never mind when they’re completely unsupervised at home.
It’s an insidious mindset, one that’s tied to presenteeism and the outdated idea that where you are working and the appearance of work matters as much as what you’re actually doing and how productive you are.
Whatever the reason for it the reactions and comments of the “working from home is basically a holiday” brigade can get into your head and make you feel as if whatever you achieve whilst working from home isn’t enough. Those voices, echoing away in the back of your head, are often enough to keep you logged on and slogging away regardless of how much you’ve already done or how late it’s getting. This problem is compounded if it happens to be your manager or head of department with those sort of unhelpful views.
There is no one easy way to deal with this one because how you try and solve it depends on whether the judging voices that are bouncing around in your brain are reflecting the reality of the situation with your colleagues/manager/head of department or if they are coming from your own insecurities. Let’s look at them one at a time:
2a. My colleagues/manager/department head is questioning whether I’m putting in a full day of work
If working from home is not something that normally happens in your team/office/company then this may be easily solved by figuring out a checking in system for yourself and the rest of your colleagues so that they, and your manager/department head, know what everyone is working on whilst everyone/certain people are out of the office. It might feel arduous at first (especially if you’re not used to timesheets) but having that extra layer of accountability may be enough to set everyone’s minds at rest.
I would, however, suggest that this system be set up as a temporary one and, especially given what is happening in the world at the moment, slack be built into the system for all. You don’t want to be wasting time logging all your work for months on end, nor should it be expected that you will all be producing to the top end of your capacity when everything is so far from normal.
2b. It’s my own insecurity
I get it. I really, honestly do. The boss I had all through the period I was working from home was one of the most enlightened and understanding managers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He, and the rest of our little team, were the reason I stayed at a company that was going from bad to worse. We were a kind and caring little oasis in the midst of a massive mess and we all had each other’s backs. The only person who was judging me harshly was me.
But I’d had bosses in the past who didn’t trust anyone. Who assumed the worst. Who treated everyone as if they were trying to pull a fast one and you had to be ready to defend your every decision at a moments notice. That experience had left deep scars and created the bit of my brain that went “well it’s just not good enough” regardless of what I was doing.
The way I dealt with my own personal boss from hell was to keep a bullet journal of everything I was doing so I could look back on it and go “yeah, I’m getting things done”. This helped in the moment and over time because I could look back and go “no wonder you’re struggling to concentrate today, do you realised how much you’ve accomplished over the last week/month”. It also helped me to see what I was doing each day that was vital but not on the to-do list at all (there was so much) and that in turn helped me manage my time better.
One last thing, before I end this post.
Please remember that no human can run at 100% capacity 100% of the time. We all have days when our minds and/or bodies just cannot with anything. This is function of being human. If you’re going to consistently judge yourself by your worst days, you’re becoming your own worst enemy. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that you are human who has good days and bad days but whose inherent worth is not tied to either of them. You are worthy of kindness and compassion and a seat at the table of humanity simply because you exist. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now go kick some working-from-home butt and remember to take care of yourself.