For as long as humans have existed, rituals and routine have played an important role in our lives. The majority of us still perform small rituals each day, even if we’re not consciously aware of them: like scanning the same series of apps or websites when we wake up, starting work with a cup of coffee, or stopping for lunch every day at the same time.
But when moving to home working, all this routine can go out the window. In the place of structured working environments, we find ourselves working where we also relax. There is no need to commute or leave the house, let alone get dressed.
This flexibility can be extremely refreshing, but it still needs some basic structure to endure long-term. So what exactly makes a good or bad work from home routine?
The importance of routine
On a surface level, routines provide productive structure to our working day. Without knowing that we rise at seven, have breakfast at eight and start work at nine, our day can stretch ahead hazily and aimlessly. Routines allow us to substitute habit for willpower; sitting down at our desk to begin a day’s work isn’t hard, because it’s what we expect to do. It’s what we always do. This allows us to put perennial chunks of the day on autopilot, so we have more energy available for our work.
On top of that, routines naturally create and enforce boundaries between work and home. Your commute back from the office gives you a chance to shrug off “work mode” – as do making dinner or going for a run when you get home. These recurring actions allow you to leave your professional self behind and embrace your private self, providing useful psychological segues to help our brain disconnect and relax.
But the importance of routine goes deeper. According to Harvard Business School professor and ritual expert Mike Norton, rituals are “a powerful human mechanism for managing extreme emotions and stress”. Routines are emotional regulators, creating a well-worn groove for our mental energies and preventing anxiety or irritation from dominating our days. They are both familiar and comforting.
So absence of routines can severely impact productivity, wellbeing and focus. Without them, it’s scarily easy to do nothing, as it is to burn out, requiring us to expend additional effort to engage each day. Daily routines are so key to success that entire books have been written about the rituals of leaders and entrepreneurs, who often cite routine as a primary reason for their success.
But what exactly makes a good work from home routine?
Commutes act as “start and shutdown rituals” for work, signalling movement in and out of work mode. When don’t have to travel to the office, figure out new ways to bookend your work day – try a short walk or yoga session, listening to a podcast, or protecting time for reading.
Start the day with your hardest, most important tasks
Most of us are familiar with the “eat the frog” concept – the idea of getting the most difficult task out of the way first. Prioritizing our most important tasks means that no matter how the rest of our day goes, we’ll have achieved something meaningful. It also gives us a powerful sense of momentum and accomplishment early on.
Take defined, regular breaks
In the office we have constant opportunities for breaks, from making coffee to chatting to colleagues before meetings start. At home you need to actively work them into your day. Never skip lunch and make it something to look forward to: call a friend, go for a stroll, make something delicious. Set calendar reminders for breaks to make sure they happen – regularly pausing just for a few minutes enriches your performance.
Schedule deep work ahead
One big perk of working from home is the opportunity to do more uninterrupted deep work – the kind that nourishes our sense of achievement and helps us learn new skills quickly. Schedule regular deep work sessions in your public calendar for focusing on complex, high-priority tasks. Give them a time limit and a clear goal, and make sure you block out all distractions before you start.
Have protected space for socializing
As social animals, colleague relationships play a big part in sustaining our motivation at work, but the practicalities of working from home can severly endanger this. Proactivelty work meaningful human contact into your day by protecting regular space for socializing. Virtual afternoon “fruit breaks” scheduled for same time each day work well, as does simply enjoying a Zoom chat with a work friend.
Time-box digital communication
Don’t become a slave to your inbox, or allow low-priority requests and notifications shape your day. Limit how often you check your inbox and Slack messages – and how long you spend responding to them – by setting time-boxed hours for managing communication. Try 30 minutes mid-morning and 30 minutes towards the end of the day.
End each day by sketching tasks for the next
This is one of the best ways to finish your daily routine, neatly suspending any incomplete tasks you naturally want to plough on with. It helps you psychologically shut the door on work for the day, and know exactly where to pick up work again the following morning.
Reserve meetings for the end of the day
Minimize the productive impact of energy-intensive (yet often superflous) syncrhonous communication by pigeon holing it to the end of your day. It’s a good idea to set meeting availability hours and outsource scheduling to an intelligent meeting software, which can find optimal meeting times and handle all back-and-forth.
Routines shouldn’t be rigid
While many people swear by maintaining fixed start times, working from home gives you the opportunity to start work when you’re actually ready (within reason!). If you didn’t sleep well, giving yourself an extra hour in bed is far better than forcing yourself to observe the same arbitrary early start. Provided you keep track of the hours you’re working so you don’t over work, it’s fine to flexibly adjust when you start each day.
Flexibility also ensures routines doing become monotonous or stifle creative thought. Keep introducing small adjustments to inject refreshing novelty into your day. Try working from a coffee shop in the morning and from home in the afternoon. If you can’t get out, move to different locations in your home following breaks. If you go for a daily walk, try a nw route. If you exercise in the morning, mix it up: go for a run one day and try yoga or a HIIT session another day.
Remember: routines shouldn’t be rigid. They just need to provide some baseline consistency to support you focus and help you drawn a line beneath your work at the end of each day.