Back in March 2020, Maariya left her office for what she—and millions of other Americans—thought would be a two- or three-week work from home stint.
More than two years later, Maariya—a Florida resident who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy—and many of those other workers are still at home, whether because their jobs can be done fully remote or because their employers have embraced a hybrid work schedule.
The 24-year-old loves the flexibility she has at home, and she says the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks for her personally. But after about a year and a half, she noticed that she was sleeping in later and later, rolling over at 8:59 a.m. some mornings and opening her laptop from bed. She could feel herself losing motivation, getting distracted by household chores, and then working later into the night to make up for the lost hours of productivity during the day. It was a “terrible cycle” she knew she had to break for her own good.
“The lack of routine wasn’t good for mental health purposes,” she says. “I felt pressure to be online 24/7. Even if I took time for myself, I still had to be available.”
Working from home offers many benefits: privacy, no commute, easy access to snacks. But some workers like Maariya can also struggle to maintain motivation or separate work from their personal lives when their office is also their living room.
If you’re struggling like Maariya, here’s how to institute a work-from-home routine that works for you.
Start with one change – Work from Home
Maariya made a few big changes to help her establish a clearer boundaries: She set up a home office in her spare bedroom, started waking up earlier to have personal time before she logs into work, blocks time on her calendar for what she calls “deep work,” and established an end-of-work ritual, which includes shutting down her laptop for the night.
She didn’t make all the changes at once but slowly over the past few months, which has made them easier to incorporate into her day-to-day, she says.
“Start off with one thing. It will feel like it’s a big step, and it will make a big difference,” she says. “It’s all about getting over that initial mental block of, ‘Hey, my routine isn’t working,’ and being honest with yourself.”
Be strategic about going into the office
If your company lets you choose the days you go into the office, structure your week around the work you’re doing and how you work best, says Elizabeth Saunders, a time management coach and author.
Some people get most of their heads-down work done at the beginning of the week, says Saunders, while others prefer to have meetings and interactions earlier in the week to clear their schedule closer to the weekend. If you’re the former, then work from home at the start of the week and go into the office on Thursdays or Fridays, when distractions from coworkers won’t disrupt your deep work as much. And vice versa.
Similarly, if you get more out of meetings when you are with others in person, try to schedule those for your in-office days rather than languishing on Zoom.
Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert should also be taken into consideration. Introverts might do better to break up the days they’re in the office—say, Tuesday and Thursday—while extroverts might get more out of working multiple days in a row in the office—say, Tuesday through Thursday.
“You want to think about, ‘How can I use the environment I’m in to help me be most productive?’” says Saunders. “Leverage it so it’s actually helping you. If you really need to be by yourself to focus, do that for a day at home.”
Don’t be too flexible
Flexibility is one of the primary reasons working from home is appealing to so many workers—but it’s possible to be too flexible, and that can have negative repercussions.
Saunders advises setting strict “office hours” and refraining from doing personal tasks that you wouldn’t do if you were in an office environment.
“It generally does not serve people to be too flexible,” she says. “You’ll procrastinate on when you start and then work longer than you want, and it becomes a vicious schedule.”
If you have to work at night, she suggests being “very structured” about that time, like restricting yourself to an hour to complete a discreet task. You also don’t need to beat yourself up if some days are less productive than others—that would happen in a full-time office setting, too.
Maariya says “intentionally setting boundaries at home” has made a world of difference in her work and personal lives. When the workday is done, she powers down her computer—which she calls an “intentional way of shutting down your brain”—and closes the door to her home office.
“Having that separation of space is important,” she says. “The smallest change in behavior makes the biggest impact.”
Make the most of office days
Finally, if you dread going into the office, Saunders suggests making the most of those days. Rather than running for the door as soon as the clock strikes 5 p.m., schedule an exercise class near your office you wouldn’t normally go to or meet up with a friend for happy hour.
“Loop it in with something fun,” she says. “You’re already dressed, you already have makeup on. You might as well do something enjoyable.”