No commute, flexible hours, and the ability to put a wash on during your lunch break... on paper, working from home sounds like the ultimate way to achieve better work-life balance. But in reality, leaving the office has caused many of us to work more unpaid hours than ever before, at a time when we’re already stressed during a global pandemic.
People who worked from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week in 2020, according to new research by the Office For National Statistics. This is compared to the 3.6 hours of unpaid overtime completed by those not working from home (which is still, arguably, too much).
Have your working hours spiralled out of control? Here are some tips to help you claw your precious free time back.
Schedule a proper lunch break
In the office, you’d get up for tea breaks, chats in the corridor before and after meetings, and to pop to the loo. Remind yourself of this if you’re feeling guilty about pausing for five minutes to have a screen break or play with the dog.
Blocking out an hour in your calendar at lunchtime is also a good idea to stop anyone else filling it with meetings. Making a plan you look forward to will help tear you away from your screen – and stop you wasting your precious lunch break with mindless, non-restorative scrolling.
Could you meet a local friend for a coffee? How about going for a run, planning a new walk, or doing a home workout? If those activities feel impossible within your usual break, consider asking your boss for a two-hour lunch.
Flexible working can benefit employees and businesses, says career coach Erica Wolfe-Murray, author of Simple Tips, Smart Ideas. If you’re struggling for time away from your screen, approach your boss with options. “Don’t put somebody on the spot in a difficult way where they’ve got to give a yes/no answer,” she says. “Say, maybe I could do this three days a week. Or, could I have a two-hour lunch break on this day so I can go out and do running?”
You’ll come back to your desk properly refreshed and ready to be productive.
Make your working hours productive
On the subject of productivity, you’ll be more inclined to log off on time if you’ve used your working hours effectively. Entrepreneur Grace Beverley, author of Working Hard, Hardly Working, says “time blocking” can improve efficiency.
“The concept is simple: as much as you can, divide your day into blocks of time and dedicate each block to accomplishing a specific task or group of tasks,” she advises. She also recommends adding 2-3 email alarms into your time blocking – and avoiding the temptation to check emails outside of this window.
“You might no longer win the prize for the quickest response, but your work quality and quantity will thank you,” she says. “With our constantly connected new working world, we’re expected to be available at all times. Despite the benefits of this connection, the constant notifications can easily hamper our time-management efforts as we’re pulled in every direction.”
Clear everything away
More than half (60%) of people working from home don’t have a dedicated space, according to a survey from Serenely Sorted. This makes tidying away your work things at the end of the day even more important, says the company’s founder and home organisation guru Diana Spellman.
“If you don’t have a designated working space and need to use the kitchen table or bedroom, but don’t clear it at the end of the day, it’s very difficult to switch off from work,” she says.
“I use a large tote bag for my work stuff – it fits laptop, notebooks, chargers etc. It’s very easy to get this out and put it back in the bag at the end of the day in what I call the ’Use-in-one-move’ approach. This avoids the endless moving of piles from one place to another, or the temptation to just leave everything out and be triggered by that email ping.”
Let it go
If you’re regularly working late into the evening, ask yourself why. It could be a sign that you’re struggling with toxic conscientiousness, a character trait fuelled by people pleasing or imposter syndrome. If you’re worried about letting people down or being seen as a failure, try to accept that no one can do it all.
“Often our inability to switch off is because we feel we’re losing control over our workload,” career change coach Alice Stapleton previously told HuffPost.
“Try to acknowledge and embrace the idea that nothing terrible will happen if you don’t tap into work for a few hours. Often, the things we consider urgent, really aren’t. If you don’t respond for a day, usually everything will still be okay.”