Lately I have noticed a modern issue become addressed more and more often: people are struggling to balance health and work life. Flexible hours for work may sound like sweet freedom, but it can actually be a terrible trap. So now, many of us are having to look for healthy work habits while we keep our mental health intact.
Whenever this question comes up on my Twitter timeline, I start typing out advice as if my life depends on it. Throughout my years of coping with mental illness, I have had to develop sturdy methods of self-care and strong coping mechanisms. I have learned to protect myself in all sorts of ways, and now I am very glad that I can share a wide range of tips and methods with other people who are struggling.
This blog post may help you if: you are a student or employee with flexible hours, you find it difficult to separate your work from your personal life, you are self-employed/a freelancer, you struggle to balance work with your mental health, you have additional needs.
My unhealthy habits
There were a number of mental health issues that affected my work. Depression made me tired all the time and gave me continuous headaches. Social anxiety kept me away from working in public places, meaning I would lock myself in my room for days. Fear of failure pressured me into working too hard, ignoring my most basic needs, like drink and food or even going to the bathroom. I could go into hyper-focus mode and not allow myself to take the tiniest break. I would be reading literature and tell myself “I can go to the toilet after this paragraph”, but then a paragraph turned into a page, and a page into a chapter, until finally I had read the whole thing in one go and my tummy was aching from a full bladder that I had ignored.
Hyper-focus may sound like a useful quality that will help you get a lot done, but I am convinced it is actually one of the most harmful qualities a person could have. I could go into this mode for hours and get loads done, but at what cost? It would launch me into anxiety afterwards from forgetting to eat and drink, and then I would fall into a depressive episode and be ill for at least two days. So in the end, it actually worked counter-productive because I ended up missing days of work. Not to mention how hard it was to get back into a routine after a few days of absence.
Eventually, I was appointed a mentor at university to help me figure out a healthy and paced way to work. They helped me get back on the horse. By carefully trying out new skills and setting up all sorts of rules and boundaries for myself, I am now maintaining a work schedule that both my body and mind can handle.
Healthy methods and tips
It strikes me that it is often overexertion that is the problem. People can be very hard workers and still feel like they’re not doing enough, or even feel unaccomplished. I have seen a lot of people prioritise work over self-care, and still express a sense of guilt over not putting in enough time. So how do you pace yourself while also getting a sense of achievement?
Here are some of the methods that help me work healthily.
1. Rise and shine at the same time
Set an alarm clock for the same time every day and try to get out of bed as soon as possible. It may feel dreadful the first few minutes, but your body and mind will wake up soon enough. After a while your body will be grateful for the routine. This goes for going to bed, too. You can train your body to wake up and get sleepy around the same time every day.
It gives you an equal amount of hours in a day, so you get a fair chance to get things done every day too. If the day feels short, you can’t blame it on sleeping in or going to bed early: you probably just put too much on your plate that day.
2. Separate work from home
One of the trickiest things in many professions is that people tend to do work at home. For teachers it is very common to prepare lessons or check tests at home. People doing freelance work might do all of their work from home, or are easily tempted to “briefly have a look at this one thing”, and then get caught into a web of work for hours on end.
This can be quite toxic, however. If you bring your physical work home, you also bring it home mentally. That means home is no longer just home: it is also your workplace. This will make it more difficult for you to relax in this space and take your mind off work. Besides, concentrating in your own home where there is lots to do can be a lot more difficult too.
If you need or want to do work outside office hours, like I am doing with my blog, try to do it outside your home environment. I am currently typing this from my local library, and for my uni work I go to the university library. Find a place that suits you and works best for you. It can be a café, the library or a flexible work space, for example.
If you don’t have these facilities around, you could think about converting a separate space in your home into an office. Make sure it is not in your bedroom, because this will affect your sleep. Try to create a closed-off work space, so you can physically close the door on your work.
3. Work in sets of 30 minutes or less
This is one of the best tips I have gotten ever. My ability to go into hyper-focus mode was a massive problem for me, because I wouldn’t notice the passing of time. Now, with an alarm, my hyper-focus mode will only last 30 minutes at the most, which is perfectly manageable. (I am currently typing this whilst in intense, but healthy, hyper-focus mode).
My mentor explained to me that people actually work best in sets of approximately 25 minutes. It is important to shift your attention every once in a while to keep producing work of good quality. So now, I set a timer for 30 minutes whenever I am working. When the timer goes off, I take a short break, or a longer one if it is time for lunch. The alarm reminds me to go to the toilet, drink some water, or have some food. It is also very useful for tracking productivity: you would be surprised how much you can get done in 30 minutes!
4. Keep to do lists
I keep a to do list for every week. However, I don’t use it as a list of things that I have to get done, but as a list of things I could work on. There is a big difference: the first may cause stress and make you feel pressured, but the second simply gives you an idea of what options you have for the day.
Keep your list achievable and don’t think too far ahead, as this can trigger anxiety. Also try to break it down in steps, i.e. “edit video for 30 minutes” rather than “edit and finish whole video!”.
I also number my to-dos so I can write down in my dairy when I worked on them. For example, if “write draft blog post” is number 4 on my list, but I didn’t get to finish it in one go, I can still write down that number on the day that I was working on it. This will be obvious proof that you were productive that day. Once I actually finish the to-do, I put a check-mark next to it.
Here are some weaker and improved examples:
5. Keep a schedule
When I was trying to get back to work during my leave of absence, my mentor at university helped me to set more realistic standards. Every week, we filled in a detailed time schedule.
I would fill in every single activity I had on that week, from “therapy” to “watering plants”. This helped me create a better overview of my life and think about how much I truly could handle. For example, if I had to go into town to do some shopping at some point, I would look for a good spot in my schedule for this. On the Saturday portrayed above, the schedule shows that most of my day is dedicated to working at the local library. There aren’t really any gaps left, so I know it would be too exhausting for me to try and fit my shopping in on this day. I would have to try it on another day.
Also bear in mind that one activity might take multiple actions. There are a number of things I would have to do to go “shop in town”: get dressed, pack my bag, put on shoes and jacket, lock door, walk to the bus stop, get on bus, travel for 20 minutes, decide which shops I want to go to, figure out a route for visiting shops, find closest bus stop on my way back, get on bus, travel for 20 minutes, walk home. On a challenging or busy day, this can all add up to be extremely exhausting and end in sensory overload.
6. Get rid of “I should”, “I must”, and “I have to”
On a mental health course about anxiety I learned that one unhelpful habit causing stress is “I should”-thinking, for example:
“I should really finish editing those pictures.”
“I must read 5 chapters today.”
“I have to send this person a message.”
Please note that with this kind of thinking, you are only pressuring yourself to do something. And what for? The world will not end if you do not get this one thing done. It will only cause you more worry and rumination. So, these kinds of thoughts can go straight out of the window!
One tip that was brought up on the course as well was to physically get rid of these worries. Jot them down, put them in some type of container, and after a little while go through them. You will probably find that, in the long run, all those things don’t actually seem so urgent after all.
7. Find relaxing activities
Even when you’re taking really good care of yourself, a day at work can still be stressful. It doesn’t always go according to plan and a lot of times things are out of your hands. In these instances it is important that when you get home, you are able to “switch off”. So figure out what kind of activities relax you or take your mind elsewhere. For me, these activities include reading, playing with my cat, and going for a walk in the park. Especially when I have spent a long day behind the computer, I like to do something completely different when I get home.
8. Your personal needs
Most important of all is that you figure out your personal needs. Try out a number of different things to work out what kind of environment boosts your productivity. Some people find having plants around helps them, for example. (My supervisor’s office looks like an actual jungle).
Personally, I have tried a couple of different things. I no longer do university work at home and I especially don’t do any work in my bedroom. I still find it difficult and distracting to work in a large public place like the university library because it taps into my social anxiety, so I asked the university for help. Because I am a disabled student, they offered me access to the library’s special assistance rooms where I can sit on my own and do work. This is just one example where asking for help has been really important for me.
For my blog, I go to the local library to work. It is very close to my house and not a very big space, so it is almost as good as my university work space. I always keep my headphones on to reduce surrounding noise, and sometimes I play rain sounds too so I am even more closed off from what is going on around me. I see this as training myself for a possibly more vibrant working environment in the future when I get a job.
Here are my tips in short:
- Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.
- Separate work from home: try to do most of your work outside the house, or create a designated space for work at home that is closed off from where you relax.
- Work in sets of 30 minutes to increase productivity.
- Keep to do lists.
- Keep a clear and detailed schedule of your week.
- Get rid of unhelpful “I should”, “I have to”, and “I must” thinking.
- Find activities that relax you after a stressful day.
- Try different things to figure out your personal needs.
I have a lot more tips in my pocket, so if there is anything specific you struggle with, do not hesitate to drop me a message. You can do this by commenting down below, leaving me a message, or contacting me through social media.
What helps you relax after a long day at work? Do you have any other tips? Please do share!