Play podcast

Giving yourself a mental health boost while working remotely

How are you feeling mentally? How is your productivity? You’ll be forgiven if the answer to either is less than stellar. As someone who has struggled with mental health at various times in the past, I have to say that remote work is one of the best facilitators of a strong mental state. It’s not a cure. Working from home, as many have discovered this past year, will not in itself make you happy. Many are, of course, struggling more now. Variables like children who are schooling from home, social isolation and additional stress are hampering many of the delights remote work brings. Avoid scapegoating these problems on the disappearance of physical office space. The magic of “normal” remote work is something a tragic % of workers have yet to experience. I used to take meetings from home in the morning, work from a cafe through the afternoon, and then work on and off from the climbing gym for the rest of the evening. Similarly, many parents are used to having the peace and quiet of a home office. Others enjoyed the communal aspects of co-working. All of these benefits will return to us, and likely with more/better options now that remote work has gone mainstream. The privilege of remote work is a vehicle that can either take you to unimagined heights, or hurtle you into a brick wall. If it’s feeling a bit like the latter currently, I’d recommend redesigning your work-from-home strategy. Here are some things you can do now to get there, which will continue to help you when things return to a sense of normality.

Tactics to maintain your mental health (while working remotely)

1. Focus on what you are doing in the moment. 

I’m guessing I can predict many recent workdays for the bulk of the remote population: 9am: You sit down to a full, often overwhelming, to-do list. 9:30am: Meetings. 10am: Okay, now back to work. 11am: Something distracts you (either internal or external), and derails your focus for a while. 11:30am: More meetings. 12pm: Okay, lunch. 12:30pm: You keep revisiting your to-do list, but feel more scattered and less certain than you did at the start. 1pm: More distractions with work in between ….. 5pm: The workday is supposed to be finished, but you’ve only ticked off several meaningful to-do items.
Sound familiar? If so, don’t worry about it. This is actually quite a common process to go through for any new remote worker. But to be honest, this feels different. No matter who we are or what our lifestyles require of us, the current situation is not optimal. It’s not just the virus that’s novel, but the whole social restructure happening around us. A full year in, and nearly everyone is feeling the fatigue. When life feels chaotic and disorderly, I like to clean my room. When my mind feels like this, mental focus plays the same role. This is a stolen insight from mindfulness and meditation. What should you focus on? Your work, as it turns out, is a great thing to focus on. When you are working, work to block out everything else to the extent that it’s possible. Close all the other tabs. Turn off your notifications. Put on your favorite headphones with nothing playing. Set aside a specific chunk of time to work on a specific task or project, and do nothing else until that time is up. You’ll be surprised that taking this approach makes even unpleasant work tasks more enjoyable. As an added bonus, they’ll be completed sooner. But you need to focus on more than just work. When you are taking a break from work to eat or watch an entertaining video, do so with intention and without guilt. If you’re playing or talking with your friends and family at home, be fully present and enjoy that time without thinking of your work. We’ve been conditioned to believe that multitasking is the essential skill to thrive in the modern world. It’s not. Multitasking is the killer of productivity, happiness and mental clarity. Don’t get sucked into the conspiracy. Those who boast of their ability to multitask probably aren’t very good at focusing.
Focus tip 1: Having trouble focusing? Schedule a break to take a walk or lay down for a short bit. This is completely acceptable when done intentionally. It’s getting caught scrolling social media or watching Netflix endlessly that you want to avoid. 
Focus tip 2: Designate physical mental spaces for each cognitive activity. Choose a place in your house where you’ll work every day, and don’t do leisure/fun activities there. Make it a productivity zone. Similarly, try not to work in your leisure spaces like the bed or the couch (I’m particularly bad at this one). 

2. Design your own daily structure.

Most of us, whether we want to admit it or not, thrive with structure. When many people complain about missing the office, this is secretly what they are getting at. Office life provides a built-in, mandatory structure to one’s day. The problem is that this structure is optimized for the masses, not the individual. For the first time in human history, a large percentage of the population has the ability to optimize their schedule to what fits them well. Embrace this gift! 
Start with the basics. Try waking up and go to sleep at the same time every day. The snooze button, since its conception, has been the enemy of mankind. This becomes more true when you are working from home and have more autonomy. 
Next, set your working and non-working hours. For many, this may still be 9-5. That’s fine. Just focus on your work during the workday, and unplug after. If you prefer to work more, that’s also fine. Just schedule it in. But especially if you have the autonomy to set your own schedule, communicate what that is with your team. If you want to use your off-hours during daylight, then great! But that leisure time will be filled with guilt/anxiety if you are worried your team will notice you offline during “working hours”. 
Finally, schedule what you need into your day. Most of us know what is required to keep us healthy (both mentally and physically). Are you a parent? Schedule time with your family every day. An exercise nut? Block that time off in your calendar every day. Paying more attention to nutrition? Schedule cooking times for each meal. 

3. Start a side project.

If you’re not a side project person, I highly recommend you become one. I’m using this term loosely because you don’t have to be starting a company for it to qualify. 
What is a side project? Any project you start just for fun “on the side” apart from your normal job. Maybe you want to start a new business. Maybe build a new product or start a blog. Perhaps it’s a new skill you want to learn, or a new field you are studying in your free time. 
It can be anything, really. Just make sure that it’s productive and useful. Bonus points if you can make it profitable someday (but note this is not a requirement). Playing video games, for example, is not a side project. Creating a video game or a YouTube commentary channel, however, most certainly is.
One of my favorite side projects was my mentality tracker. It’s an Airtable form/table where I track components of my mental health (happiness, stress, anxiety, productivity, etc.) against variables like sleep, exercise and alcohol consumption. If you’d like a copy of the template to try yourself, DM me on Twitter.
Screenshot of my mental tracker in Airtable. To be honest, you should do this apart from the whole COVID-19/work from home ordeal. I promise it will do nothing but enhance your life. If your employer discourages side projects, ignore them (when you’re not at work). Also, put me in touch with them, and I’ll give them a 2-hour lecture on why having a side project improves your day job morale and creativity. Ideally, it will keep growing long after the virus does, and you’ll find a new life passion. Maybe even a new career! But even if that’s not your intention, having the ambition to start something of your own will boost your professional credibility in the eyes of pretty much everyone. Exponentially. There’s also never been a better time to create something new. Here are some ideas off the top of my head:
  • Start a new Substack newsletter
  • Take an online college course 
  • Learn to code
  • Build something using no-code tools (like my Airtable example) 
  • Start investing
  • Build yourself a personal website.

4. Maintain social interactions.

When the pandemic first started, I think most of us paid pretty close attention to this. Family Zoom calls, virtual dinner parties and other similar events were novel and unique. As time went on, people began suffering from Zoom fatigue through work. If you’ve been on meetings for 4+ hours of the day, it’s fair that you may not want to stare at a screen any longer, even if it’s with someone you love. 
As much as introverts like myself try to argue otherwise, all humans are social creatures, and we all need social interaction. If you are able to, go take a safe outdoor walk with friends who live nearby. Talk to your family and friends on an audio call while taking a walk outside. Vent to them over a voice memo with what you are struggling with. Even sending photos and messages in a group chat helps. 
No matter how great your virtual co-workers are, you need a personal life. While that is harder now to maintain than ever, it’s still possible. Know that we are in the home stretch, and even when it doesn’t feel like it, we are all in this together (excuse the overused cliche). 

5. Keep a check on your physical health.

It’s no secret that physical and mental health are deeply linked.
Personally, if I go a week without exercising (or a weekend, as I recently learned), I’ll probably be having some level of an anxiety attack. While this is perhaps a bit extreme, sitting inside all day long is basically like poisoning your mental health.
And speaking of poison, what are you eating and drinking while stuck at home? Unfortunately, both exercising and eating well are more difficult during social isolation. I’ll try to offer a couple of helpful tricks for each of the two categories.
Pandemic Fitness Exercises
  • Running or biking outside — This is probably the best option, as you get fresh air outside of the house while also exercising. It’s also quite safe if you are concerned about the virus, so long as you don’t go to crowded areas. 
  • Yoga — If you have a yoga mat, great! If not, order one or improvise. I’ve gotten super into yoga recently, and while watching video instruction isn’t as much fun as a class, it’s better than nothing!
  • Floor Exercises — Check out strong.app for an EXCELLENT collection of exercises. You can even build and save full workouts, and filter exercises based on the equipment (or lack thereof) in your home! I did some work for them a while back, and it’s genuinely a great product.
  • Workout bands — buy them on Amazon! You’ll find an endless amount of at-home workouts with these online.
  • Door frame pull-up bar — Basic but a good one. You can also use them for core exercises like leg-ups. 
  • Ankle weights — same for the above. But I’ll give a +1 to this option because you can combine it with the pullup bar.
Overview of strong.app
Eating well
Eating well is one of the things that can be made harder or easier while working from home. On one hand, you have a kitchen next to you at all times to cook delicious and fresh food for every meal based on your preferred diet. On the other hand, you might have a fridge and cabinet stocked with your favorite junk food. And while food delivery has been a pandemic godsend for most, it also means you can order takeout straight to your door whenever you are too tired to cook. If you enjoy food preparation to any extent, now is the time to embrace it. An easy way to make it more fun is treating yourself to a new cooking toy, like an air fryer or an instapot. I currently have a Notion page where I’m designing my dream outdoor kitchen for the summer (spoiler: it has a custom wok). Get risky with new recipes you’ve never been bold enough to try. One of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling bad is to reassess my diet. Most of us have different dietary preferences, so it’s quite a fun and empowering activity to outline your ideal nutritional composition, and list recipes in line with it that you want to try. If you feel lost in this area, it’s a perfect time to take some courses or hire an expert to learn.
A little homemade curry (from leftover non-perishables.)

6. Mental health “exercises”.

Exercising isn’t just for fitness anymore. I’m not sure why this hasn’t become more of a thing. People have been physically working out to improve their physical condition for pretty much all of history (probably, not going to fact-check that). So why wouldn’t we also want to put in the effort to maintain a positive mental condition? I think this is particularly important as we all deal with a heavy load of health, social and financial stress. Here are a couple of my favorites:
1. Meditating I started out by using Headspace for guided meditations and would absolutely recommend the same. Once you master guided meditations, you’ll really get the benefits from doing it unguided. For that, I use a really simple meditation bell app. I usually set a 15min total time with “chimes” every 3–5 minutes.
2. Gratitude Journaling I hear you can buy prompted gratitude journals online. I guess that’s fine, but I like to write my own. It’s very simple. Every day, I write down 5 concrete things I’m grateful for. On a good day, one might be spending time with loved ones. On a bad day, one might just be my cup of coffee in the morning.
3. Reframing This is a new one for me, but I love it. It’s an exercise I half-adopted from some book I don’t remember. But basically once a day I take whatever is bothering me the most, and write it down in a notebook. Then I force myself to re-write it with a positive perspective.
If you start to feel bad, I’ll leave you with this last piece of advice from my mother: clean your room. Seriously. Your home is now your home, your office, your restaurants, and your gym. If you let the personal space you now occupy 100% of the time fall victim to entropy, your mentality will soon follow. You’d be shocked at how much good a solid clean can do.
I’ve recently been experimenting with combining #2 and #3 into the following exercise:
4. Get out of the house I know most of us are still trying to stay inside as much as possible, but get out before you hit your max. Something as simple as going for a walk can make a world of difference. If you have the option nearby, try to get out into nature regularly. Walk to the store instead of driving. By a bicycle and ride it around the neighborhood. 

Share what you’ve learned and follow along 

I’m not the only one who has been experimenting with these methods for maintaining mental health, and I’d love to hear what everyone else has figured out. You can follow along with what I’m experimenting with on Twitter, and also DM me what you’ve learned. You can also send me an email any time to sam@safetywing.com
For additional insights, I also highly recommend following Ness Labs (no affiliate to myself). It’s one of my favorite accounts/newsletters that focuses on neuroscience-based mindfulness and productivity information. Anne-Laure Le Cunff who founded Ness Labs is one of the few people I’ve encountered who is focusing on this critical area. 

About the author

Sam Claassen

Head of Growth
SafetyWing
Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a serial advocate for remote work. A longtime nomad himself, he has been to 65 countries while doing growth and remote work consulting for startups and accelerators. Through his work at SafetyWing, he is working with a team to create BuildingRemotely.com – a podcast, online resource and soon to be book on building a thriving remote company.