Here in Berlin, the winters are usually cloudy and damp with the temperature hovering around 1 °C. The days are relatively short and it’s not very fun going outside.
Especially now, with the Covid-19 global pandemic in full swing, we all need to concentrate more on taking care of ourselves. Here are some techniques that have helped me.
1. Separate your work and living space
A friend who ran his own business had his office attached to the side of his house. But there was no connecting door. He always had to go outside to transition between work and home.
I’ve never had a setup quite as nice as that, but instead, my partner and I have rented small private offices in an industrial estate. They’re reasonably priced and a 5-minute bike ride from our apartment. They’re certainly less expensive than renting an apartment with two extra “office rooms.”
This provides us with quiet spaces to work from, which is invaluable with two young kids at home. It also allows us to leave work there at the end of the day. Honestly, I still do bring work home sometimes but at least it’s not always at home.
I realise that this isn’t possible for everyone, but even if you have to work in the same room where you sleep, try taking a “commute walk” or a bike ride at the beginning and end of your workday. I highly recommend venturing outside at least once while the sun is up.
2. Take breaks in which you do as little as possible
I’m sometimes a harsher boss than anyone I’ve worked for. You’re not being paid to slack off, I tell myself. Get those fingers back on the keyboard. Fortunately, I’ve read enough research to mostly convince myself that taking breaks from your work actually improves productivity.
Cigarette smokers seem to have figured this rhythm out a long time ago, but you don’t have to develop an expensive and unhealthy habit to have an excuse to take regular breaks. When I work with smokers I sometimes go outside with them, sipping a coffee instead. Try taking an “air break” every hour or so, maybe feeling extra smug that you don’t need to suck in smoke as an excuse for leaving your desk.
I really like the Pomodoro technique. You work in focussed cycles of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. It’s easy to keep track using an old-school kitchen timer or one of the many apps for computer, phone or watch that automatically track these increments for you. On my mac laptop, I use an app called “Tomato 2.”
When I’m still feeling really focussed after 25 minutes and don’t want to stop I set the timer for another 25 minutes and then take a 10-minute break.
During break times, I recommend getting away from the screen or whatever you look at when you’re working. Make a cup of tea, do some stretches or a short meditation. Or just stare out the window, hopefully getting some much-needed natural-daylight into your eyes.
Try not to do house-work or other tasks during your break. If you can stand it, avoid checking social media feeds or playing with your phone. It’s recommended that you take a longer break of 15–30 minutes every 4 Pomodoro cycles, which is about 2 hours. These give you a chance to catch up on notifications and reply to social-media messages.
I also recommend turning off as many notifications as you can during these focus cycles. I’ve been experimenting with turning off all notification sounds on my phone. I really don’t miss it and so far nobody’s complained that I don’t answer them fast enough. If someone calls me, the phone will still ring. And yes, I realise it sounds crazy to have a phone that only does that.
3. Get regular exercise in whatever way you can
Why bother keeping in shape at a time like this? How about because it improves your ability to focus on work and, what’s probably even more important, your longevity.
I was once 20 kg heavier than I am now. I got there by unconsciously avoiding regular exercise and a lot of snacking. I got to my current weight by counting calories and prioritizing exercise in my daily routine. Try carrying a backpack loaded with 20 kg for even a few minutes and you’ll get a sense of how exhausting it can be to heft this sort of weight around all day. I think that alone is reason enough to keep myself fit.
Our cave-person brains encourage us to conserve energy in case we need to escape a sabre-toothed tiger later in the afternoon. But getting your body moving for at least half an hour a day carries myriad benefits to your mood and general health.
A cheap yoga matt and a smartphone app are a great start. There are lots of options, including free “7-minute-workout” apps, which really do make a difference to your fitness if you follow them daily. It’s amazing how many different exercises you can do with just gravity to fight against. I recommend the “yoga” and “workout” apps from Downdog.
A decent pair of running shoes and some good music in your headphones can boost your mood significantly in even 20 minutes. I like finding routes along waterways. Even if it’s just a canal, being around a body of water is another natural mood booster.
If you can’t go outside and you don’t have money or space for a stationary bicycle or treadmill, step machines are small and much more affordable. Yoga mats are even cheaper and easier to store.
You won’t regret taking the time for daily exercise.
4. Speak with colleagues at least once a day
I mostly consider myself introverted and I really appreciate quiet times when I can focus on a task. But I’ve learned through trial and error that I am still a social being. Regularly chatting with others, face to face, usually improves my mood.
If you’re already spending your day typing on your laptop or smartphone it’s easy to flip to a different app and type some more when you want to communicate with someone else. But don’t you still miss those spontaneous “watercooler” chats?
With or without video, just hearing the sound of another human voice can be good for you. Whenever you feel like you’re getting into a lengthy text-chat with a colleague, suggest that you move the conversation to a call.
Even with the broad range of emojis and animated gifs available to augment our chats, there’s no substitute for hearing the nuances of someone else’s speech to help you understand them.
I try to log into online meetings a few minutes early, which often gives me a chance to have an informal catch-up with other colleagues before the meeting starts.
You can also plan a virtual lunch or coffee session with your colleagues. Try to keep the topics of conversation away from work.
5. Use a daylight-simulating “therapy” lamp
For some reason, I baulked at this idea for a long time, but now that I have one of these, I don’t want to go back. I bought one for my office but I missed it so much on the weekends that I started bringing it home. Eventually, I decided to get a second one so I didn’t have to carry it around all the time.
On short and cloudy days, sometimes we don’t get to see the sun at all. Even if you don’t suffer from Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) research indicates that placing a bright white light in your workspace can help you to maintain better focus and can even improve your sleep patterns.
Most of these therapy lights have features that allow you to select multiple colours and brightness levels.
I’ve found that keeping one of these lamps on during the mid-afternoon makes me feel more alert. They’re also great for illuminating your face during video calls. It sometimes feels like I have my own controllable studio lighting rig.
Winter in home-office doesn’t have to suck. It might your least favourite time of year but with a few easy tricks, you can make things better.
Staying in the same dark room all day long, staring at a dimly-lit screen can be really depressing, even if your screen shows you some really cute or funny cat videos.
Try to prioritise regular breaks that include movement, seeing the sun (or a sun substitute) and real-time connections with other people. It will improve your work. It will also improve the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.