9 to-dos for your remote work mental health

WellbeingCategory
13 min read
Kayla Schilthuis-Ihrig

At its best, remote work is a gift that provides the flexibility and freedom to execute your ideal lifestyle. At its worst, it's a lonely, unstimulating, and isolating den of burnout and destruction that makes you yearn for a cubical — a big reason to take care of your remote work mental health.

Too intense? Given that remote work mental health is directly linked to your physical health, productivity, and income, I think the intensity is warranted.

Burnout, stress, anxiety, eye strain, exhaustion — neglecting your mental health has an impressive rap sheet.

And if the physical consequences aren’t enough, the terms “work from home depression” have countless searches per month on Google, so I know this is as urgent for your emotional state as it is for your bloodshot eyes.

Remote workers have a steep task of making life balance out work. It’s not easy and it won’t happen on its own. But thankfully, it can start to happen today with these tips.

9 ways to improve remote work mental health

After surveying my own network about their remote work mental health experiences and aggregating responses across LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, three pillars arose:  physical, organizational, and emotional efforts.

Let’s start with the area that’s easiest to tackle.

3 physical tips

As abstract as mental health may seem on its face, our physical surroundings have a massive impact. Here are three opportunities to improve your remote work mental health that are waiting for you.

1. A separate workspace

The masses have been heard: this was the most-mentioned factor that helped with remote work mental health in my survey.

Who knew having a door to close would become such a commodity? The visual severance of the workspace from the living space has proved to be invaluable.

In particular, separate your workspace from your relaxing, eating, and sleeping spaces. This will help with work-life balance, but actually has an even more impactful effect on your focused mental state.

A designated workspace also has the benefit of conditioning your mind that *this* is the place to perform. You speed up the mental process of working by creating routines.

By showing up to your focus space and completing a series of expected steps, you mentally prepare for focused work.

Foster a separate at-home workspace to facilitate this state of being “on” and you’ll feel a hasted decompression at the end of the workday also.

Those living in multi-use spaces such as a studio can still grasp these benefits. Pack your laptop away out of sight after working, or your keyboard and mouse if you have a desktop computer that remains in sight. Remove work-related apps from your phone and turn off notifications during non-working hours.

To further this tangible separation, also consider “commuting” home. When you’re done working, take a walk around the block or a bike ride to clear your head before entering into the relaxation phase of your day.

The mental health benefits are even more impactful for your remote work mental health if you don’t wait for the end of the day to take breaks like that.

2. Frequent breaks

Breaks aren’t *earned* after you’ve done enough work. They also aren’t responses to physical demands, such as bathroom and food breaks.

They shouldn’t be, anyway. They should be routine pit stops to refill the mental fuel before you sink below E and drift off the road with our flashers on.

Or even just before your focus and quality of work start to really deteriorate. Learning to meter yourself and implement breaks sounds like it requires a lot of discipline, but you should take comfort in knowing that this is a pass-fail task.

If you commit to a five-minute break for every 25 minutes of working and you don’t work during those five  “off” minutes, then you succeeded. Yeah! That’s a win. Do it for a month and see what a difference it makes.

Here are a few tools to help you:

  • A Pomodoro timer built into your web browser. The famous Pomodoro technique involves focused work for 25 minutes and then taking alternating short and long breaks. Available for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.
  • A physical ticking timer, such as a kitchen timer, that measures work periods and break periods. There are many phone apps that serve this purpose, but finding a tool that doesn't require you to look at your phone will probably be most fruitful.

Revel in this win because the next mental health task isn't as straightforward to achieve.

3. Community

In order to combat the social impact of working from home, the void of colleagues must be filled. Even if you work on a remote team and have employees that you converse with virtually every day, the amount of interaction is still drastically reduced.

Look for communities to join to put socializing on your calendar. IRL (in real life) communities that center around the remote work experience are plentiful and can be found through:

  • Coworker, a marketplace that helps you find the perfect coworking space in upwards of 170 countries.
  • STROLLÿN, a fusion of Airbnb and coworking where you stay in someone’s home and work together.

Digital communities are even easier to access. A few options include:

  • Location Indie, a digital community of location-independent workers (or aspiring ones) with weekly events online, and periodic real-life meetups across the globe (paid).
  • Remotely One, an online community for location-independent workers with a Slack community, real-life events, and an app for finding coworking and mentorship opportunities and even dating leads, all within the remote work realm (free).

Community can also be detached from remote work altogether and center around a completely different area of your life, such as:

  • An interest in movies, books, or sports
  • Physical exercise, hiking, or local exploration
  • Creative outlets such as writing, poetry, or music

Prioritize building community as a remote worker and you’ll feel the benefits to your mental health.

3 organizational tips

I know, no one wants to be told to be more organized. As someone who used to work with toddlers, I know that this resistance comes from somewhere very primitive, but stay on the line.

Beyond the natural knee-jerk reaction, I know that the topic of organization can be isolating for neuroatypical remote workers. There’s something here for everyone’s mental health.

4. Staying ahead of schedule

You don’t need to be told that procrastination is bad. If you struggle with dithering (and there’s no judgment if you do) then you know how bad it is.

Has it ever led you to cancel social plans? Or let a task cause infinitely more stress than it needed to?

Have you kicked yourself a thousand times for letting things get down to the wire again?

Make no mistake: if you struggle with procrastination, then this is a HARD thing to avoid. Some people will naturally be immune to it, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you’re just not one of them.

But letting a low-key task get down to the wire and turn into a situation as pressure-filled as disarming a bomb is not good for your remote work mental health.

If the stick is the only thing that gets you to complete unwanted tasks, then you *need* to find your carrot, or any other motivational tool to help prevent you from getting into unnecessary high-pressure situations.

5. Creating systems that work for you

"You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems."

This quote is from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits — and how true it is.

The term “systems” doesn’t just refer to sophisticated workflow software or flowcharts. Systems are the recurring processes that you experience in business.

A system can be as simple as zeroing out your inbox every day or batching a month’s worth of LinkedIn content on the last two days of every month.

Systems benefit your remote work mental health because they create patterns and a clear path for success. They can also save you a lot of time, mental fuel, and work if they fall into these three categories:

  • Automation
  • Delegation
  • Elimination

It can encompass a whole range of processes that make workflow more fluidly:

  • Automated calendar schedulers such as Calendly
  • Pre-written emails or direct message responses to FAQs
  • Forms on your website that trigger automated emails
  • Social content scheduler
  • Making payments automatically

Focus on creating clear systems in your business to reduce the number of steps and decisions that fall repeatedly on your shoulders. When done properly systems also create achievable tasks, which leads right into point number six.

6. Achievable goals

You wouldn’t go on a scavenger hunt if there wasn’t a prize, or start learning an instrument without the expectation of someday playing a song.

Finish lines matter, and so many tasks in business become meaningless without them.

Set feasible goals for yourself that you can check off of your list. Don’t chase goals that are too big, or you’ll repeatedly fail to achieve them, and remember to be gentle with yourself.

Use these guidelines when setting goals specifically to help with mental health:

  • Give more slack than you think you need
  • Track your progress
  • Be honest about why something was or wasn’t achievable

Can you feel a change in the air? We’ve moved from concrete physical tips to a more abstract space. We’re entering the realm of emotional remote work mental health tips.

3 emotional tips

Moving across the scale from physical to organizational to emotional feels reminiscent of decluttering with “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. She advises that you save sentimental tidying for last, as it's the most difficult step in the journey.

This task list will be no different. It’s easier to buy a desk for your spare bedroom than it is to conquer your personal pitfalls.

As Marie Kondo put it in her book, “people cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”

Changing the way you think is a big task, but I think you’re already partially there. You know that your remote work mental health deserves better than the attention you’ve been giving it.

You wouldn’t still be reading if that weren’t the case. So, let’s bring it home with these emotional shifts.

7. Habits

Develop good ones, and axe the bad ones.

Good news: this can oftentimes be done simultaneously.

A very effective way of achieving this is to identify your habits that are most detrimental to your remote work mental health and make reactive good habits that are quantifiable, and therefore achievable on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Here are some examples:

Bad HabitQuantifiable Reactive Good Habit
Failing to take breaksTake a break every morning and afternoon
Not moving enoughGet 10,000 steps every day
Failing to fulfill social needsScheduling a recurring friends outing on the second Friday of every month

To aid in your habit-making, consider using a habit tracker app. A few options that are free and available for both iPhone and Android users are:

8. Don’t let things linger

We already brushed up against this remote work mental health tip when we went over the benefits of having a separate workspace, but things linger in more ways than one.

I’m talking about emails lingering in your inbox, or knowing that you have an uncomfortable conversation somewhere in the near future.

You put yourself through the stress of completing a task many times over when you procrastinate.

Have you ever been guilty of a cycle like this?

  • You realize that you have to do your taxes.
  • It’s stressful but it’s not due yet, so you postpone it until it’s necessary to face it yet.
  • Every week, the taxes to-do graces your mind, and you dread it more with every encounter.
  • By the time you sit down to do your taxes, it takes five hours. Yet you’ve spent weeks being affected by this.

This cycle is a brutal mistake. I can say this as an authority, because I just did this with my taxes (anyone else?).

On its face this looks like a problem of procrastination, but in reality the problem is a void of proactivity.

Entrepreneurs must prioritize their to-do lists. If task Z doesn’t need to be done for a month, there are naturally tasks A through Y waiting in line ahead of it.

But consider identifying the to-dos that will take up unnecessary headspace and re-prioritizing them. By moving them to the front of the list, you eliminate days, weeks, or months of stress.

Carve out 25 minutes of your day for tasks that you don’t want to do. Use the web browser extensions that we talked about before or your phone timer and commit to this for even just two days a week and your life will be changed.

This approach will turn you into a proactive stress-eliminating machine.

9. Meditation

After the door is closed to your workspace, your to-do list is tackled, and you’re ahead of schedule, there’s one final step you can take to tend to your remote work mental health: meditation.

Start with something achievable, such as meditating for one minute a day (re: Atomic Habits). Try it alone or with a guided meditation app such as Calm.

If the act of clearing your head with guided meditation is too abstract or not conducive with your brain chemistry, consider a guided journal or a planner:

Learning to calm your mind with meditation may be the most abstract mental health tip, but it could also be the most effective.

Next steps

Setting your own work hours, a flexible work environment, and the freedom that working remotely provides don’t mean anything if you nosedive into burnout and can’t sustain it.

Commit to these remote work mental health tips and reward yourself every. single. time. you achieve them.

Word collage graphic that emphasizes work, break, and time

Personally, my rewards system is a sheet of multi-colored star stickers that I place in my planner to celebrate. Each color represents a different win, with a blue star being the dazzling trophy for a mental health win.

Don’t forget to earn your own blue star today.

Start today with one of these mental health wins and celebrate yourself, because this lifestyle is incredibly difficult to keep in balance.

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