Are you working from home at least one day a week and feel that your well-being while doing so may be greater? Then this blog post is perfect for you. And even if you work in the office all the time, you will find most of the following tips useful too.
Let’s start by a definition of well-being. Cambridge Dictionary defines well-being as the state of feeling healthy and happy. It’s then clear that in order to improve your well-being in the home office, you will have to make sure that your general well-being, the foundation, is optimised. That means making sure you get enough quality sleep, maintain proper nutrition and move enough so your body functions in the right way.
Now, you’re getting enough sleep on a regular basis, fuel your body with all the nutrients it needs and include some physical movement on a daily basis. What should you then do to improve your well-being in the home office?
Give Your Day a Structure
First things first, it’s important that your day has a structure. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but a simple structure or schedule will greatly improve your well-being in the home office as your day will be less chaotic. It will be enough if you split your day into three main blocks or phases - a morning routine, work, and a post-work time.
What a morning routine will do is that it will start your day off in the right way and will therefore set you up for optimal work performance and well-being. It doesn’t have to be long or complex. What matters the most is that you start it by waking up at about the same time everyday since that will largely contribute to the optimisation of your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm, or clock, governs the daily cycle - when you naturally wake up and feel the need to sleep. More fundamentally, it determines how your whole body works, including the moods you experience. So you’d better do everything to regulate it correctly.
A morning routine can include, for example, going for a short walk, having breakfast and journaling for a few minutes before beginning to work. What you include in your morning routine doesn’t matter as long as the activities are pleasant to you and you do them consistently.
That being said, there are two activities we would recommend to everyone because of their powerful benefits. The first of them is taking a walk outdoors. We recommend this activity because of two reasons. First, it’s been demonstrated that forward movement reduces feelings of fear and anxiety (1). And be sure to know that you don’t have to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder to benefit from taking a walk. Nearly everyone experiences anxiety in various forms to some extent.
Second, being exposed to sunlight early after waking is crucial for the regulation of the circadian rhythm (1). And just to be clear, it doesn’t have to be sunny for you to benefit from spending some time outdoors. Even if it’s overcast, the sunlight intensity is strong enough to be beneficial for regulating your circadian rhythm.
How long should you then be outdoors to benefit from sunlight exposure? It will depend on the sunlight intensity, but anywhere from 5 minutes on a sunny day to 30 minutes on an overcast day should be enough according to research (1).
It may be tempting to think that sitting by the window or in the conservatory will do the job in the same way. It will do the job eventually, but it will take much longer (at least twice as much) because glass reduces the sunlight intensity by about 50%. And by staying indoors, you will also miss out on the benefits of walking.
The other activity that we recommend including in your morning routine to improve your well-being is the practice of gratitude. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated by countless studies (2) and it may not take more than 5 minutes to do this activity. Essentially what you aim to do during a “gratitude practice” is to relax for a while and list, whether mentally or on paper, a number of things you are grateful for and feel the feeling of gratitude. It’s generally advised to list 3 up to 5 such things, but listing the things is not enough. It’s crucial you really are grateful for them. Don’t try to be grateful for something you assume you should be grateful for, because it won’t work. If you incorporate this activity into your day, no matter whether it be your morning routine or any other part of the day, you will see noticeable well-being benefits, especially in the long term as your brain will be rewired to look for the positive things about life.
If you’re a coffee drinker and tend to experience afternoon crashes due to the effects of withdrawing caffeine, you may find the following tip helpful. Try delaying drinking coffee in the morning by 1,5 to 2 hours. By doing this, the system in the body monitoring the level of tiredness will have accumulated some units of tiredness so to speak - adenosine molecules in case you wanted to know that - that will be negligible for you but will ensure that there is not too high an influx of adenosine that would cause a crash once caffeine, a blocker of adenosine, starts to fall off (1).
Now you know how to introduce more structure to your day in the morning, priming yourself for a work day full of well-being through a morning routine. To give the other half of your day some structure too, it’s important to separate your work time from your personal time. When you work from an office, the separation line, if you will, is created by commuting back home. But that’s not the case if you work from home. Therefore you have to create it deliberately yourself. The simplest solution for many will be just logging off of all work-related programmes and applications and making a promise that you will not do any more work unless absolutely necessary. In this way, your work and personal lives won’t blend, which is important for avoiding burnout.
Create a Suitable, Pleasant Workspace
How you design your home office will also influence your well-being. Design experts stress the importance of biophilic design in the home office (3), which takes the innate human need to be in connection with nature into account. To optimise your well-being indoors, it will be useful to use natural materials, introduce some greenery into the environment and have plenty of natural light. And a nice view to the outdoors, especially if there’s some greenery too, will contribute to your well-being levels as well of course. Most importantly, no matter how you decide to design your workspace, it should feel comfortable and pleasant so there’s no unnecessary obstacle on the way to giving your best at work.
As mentioned under the first tip, it’s especially important to get enough sunlight exposure in the morning after waking, but it’s also important to have a sufficient intensity of light in your workspace during about the first 6 - 9 hours after waking to regulate the circadian rhythm properly (4). If you don’t have enough natural light in your workspace, it may be worth investing into a ring light or another bright light you could use to increase the light intensity. After this first “light” period of the day, it’s advised to begin to gradually decrease the light intensity so the circadian rhythm has enough time to adjust itself for sleep. This may mean switching off overhead lights and keeping just natural light coming through the windows unless it’s too dark in order for you to work.
Also, we would like to address the topic of blue light. It’s nowadays common to think that blue light is harmful and one should avoid it at all costs. It’s true that too much of blue light exposure within a few hours before sleep and any blue light exposure at night can have negative effects on the circadian rhythm, but blue light is part of the light spectrum that naturally occurs in nature, like in sunrays in the morning, and is not harmful during other parts of the day (1). On the contrary, it will actually be beneficial to be exposed to a lot of blue light, and other wavelengths of light, in the first light period of the day as discussed above. Therefore, avoid using any blue light blockers during this part of the day to avoid any adverse effects on your well-being.
Your actual work set-up is as important as the surroundings of it for optimising well-being. It’s crucial you have a proper, ergonomic chair so you avoid unnecessary back pain. Such a chair should be adjustable so you sit at the appropriate height for the table or desk you will be using. The height of the chair should allow you to rest your forearms on the desk or table and keep your elbows at a 90° angle. Also, the back rest should be sturdy enough to provide firm support for your back.
Incorporating bouts of standing into the day has been shown to increase well-being besides being beneficial for five other crucial aspects of life as we have outlined in one of our previous blog posts solely dedicated to working standing up. And so it would be unreasonable to neglect this aspect of working when designing your home office. Generally, you can either get a full-fledged, adjustable standing desk, which will enable you to work standing up and also sitting down, or get a regular desk and a desk converter, also known as a desk attachment, which you can add on top of the existing desk and work standing up too. The main benefit of the latter approach is cost minimisation as desk converters are much more inexpensive than regular standing desks.
If converters are of interest to you, you may want to check out our hydesk as, thanks to its compactness, you will be able to store it almost anywhere, whether it be a drawer, closet or a shelf. It’s also very lightweight and so you will be able to move it easily from place to place. In addition, you will be able to use it as a laptop stand for raising it to your eyes’ level when you work in a seated position, which is important for preventing upper back and neck pain from excessive hunching.
When it comes to standing itself, you should aim to stand for about 50% of the overall work time per day according to what experts say (4). However, it’s recommended to break this standing time into a number of bouts so you don’t strain your body, especially if you’re not used to standing a lot. And if you’re not used to working standing up at all, it’s better to start with very short standing durations and gradually work your way up as your body becomes accustomed to longer periods of standing.
To take your well-being even further, you can consider getting a wrist rest so you avoid any excessive bending in the wrists when typing on the keyboard.
If you want to boost, or at least maintain, your well-being, it won’t happen with constant interruptions during the time when you’re supposed to be the most productive and focused. Therefore it’s crucial to minimise all unnecessary distractions.
A good start is creating a dedicated workspace separated from the rest of the household. It will help tremendously with minimising distractions caused by other household members and temptations like chilling on the sofa or exploring the fridge. If you aren’t fortunate to be able to use a whole room as a home office, you could still have a dedicated desk where you would do all or most of your work.
Though working from one spot in your home will overall be helpful for getting into a work mindset and minimising distractions, you may find it beneficial to change the work location when feeling a need to change things up a bit. That may mean working from the living room, the kitchen or venturing to a coffee shop.
Next, it will be helpful if you prepare all your equipment and tools before you start working each day. This preparation will minimise the risk that you will have to fetch something later on in the middle of deep work and struggle to get back in there, which can lead to unnecessary delays and stress.
Lastly, we couldn’t leave out the king of all distractions - your phone with social media on it. If you don’t necessarily need your phone for the work you do, just switch it off and leave it in a different room, for example. Some people are so addicted to it that they have gone to such lengths as to lock their phone in their car. Well, just do what will work for you of course.
If you happen to need your phone for your work or can’t get rid of it for any other reason, spend some time installing one of those app blockers, which will allow you to block any apps you shouldn’t want yourself to use during your working time. Not only does excessive phone checking, and social media checking in general, make you less productive, it also numbs your dopamine system. With this numbness, it will be more difficult for you to feel good about the more ordinary aspects of life. And as any monk would tell you, it’s the appreciation and enjoyment of the ordinary things in life that is a foundation for well-being. And as you can guess, the same checking principles apply to email and any other communication platforms. Unless your job consists mainly in replying to emails, allow yourself not to check emails for as long as possible and your levels of well-being will rise as a result.
Work with your body, not against it
If you’ve made it here, you may have the impression that we’re trying to convey that you should try to work as productively as possible and perhaps even avoid taking breaks. But that’s not the case really. So far the stress has been on minimising unwanted breaks to gain the most from the bouts of focused, deep work.
Science has revealed that, throughout the 24-hour (circadian) cycle, overall human performance runs in 90-minute cycles (+- 30 minutes) with a bit of “downtime” in between (5). This cycle is an example of an ultradian cycle, meaning it’s shorter than 24 hours. An approximate representation of the performance cycle is shown in the figure below.
What this essentially means is that your body isn’t designed for you to begin work in the morning and try to work continuously for hours with minimal breaks until the end of the work day as you may think. There’s a natural rhythm to human performance, and to optimise your well-being, as well as your productivity obviously, you’d better sync your work with this performance rhythm.
As you can see on the graph, the first half of each cycle is characterised by increased arousal, which is a prerequisite for high-level performance. As you start crossing the 45-minute mark, the arousal will begin to dissipate and you will be getting diminishing returns on your effort, as exhaustion - mental and metabolic waste - will be accumulating in the body. At about the 90-minute mark, you will be receiving signs from your body to take a break as it will be entering the so called “trough” - a healing response, which can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. The signs can be brain fog, fatigue, irritation, increased distractibility, etc. During the healing response, your body will be getting rid of the metabolic waste, regenerating in other words, to prepare itself for another performance cycle.
So what you logically want to do is to match the beginning of your work bout with the beginning of a 90-minute cycle to utilise the biological priming for high-level performance and allow your body to recover during the following trough. It, of course, won’t always be possible due to external factors influencing your daily schedule, like colleagues, bosses and your family, but try to utilise these cycles as much as possible.
How exactly do you sync your work with the cycles though? Are the performance cycles completely independent of your will and behaviour? When does the first cycle start?