Keep yourself from going stir-crazy when you work from home

Guest post by Lindsey Heimbach
By: Maegan Tintari - CC BY 2.0
By: Maegan TintariCC BY 2.0

Working from home is practically the new American dream. Everyone I know wants to do it, and everyone I know says they envy my ability to set my own hours, pick my own clients, and work in my pajamas (or naked!) any time I feel like it.

What’s less obvious is that working from home can be a huge stressor sometimes. You know how bored you get when you haven’t left the house in a few days? Imagine not really having to leave the house for work, ever. The only time you leave is when you have a grocery trip or a laundromat run.

Pretty soon you start sleeping late every day, and then you’re working through the afternoon and into the night. Once your work is done, there’s no reason to leave the house because your friends are sleeping and the laundromat is closed.

Still sounds like the American dream?

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to keep yourself from losing your mind as a stir-crazy freelancer. Here’s just a few of the ways I keep myself sane on a daily basis…

Maintain regular working hours

The hardest part of freelancing for me is setting hard-and-fast rules about when I can work. Half the fun of working from home is setting your own hours, which means that if I want to sleep until noon and work until midnight, that’s my prerogative.

Unfortunately, working weird hours and sleeping late also means fewer opportunities to get out of the house during the day. When I’m working erratic hours, my social life suffers and so does my sanity. I get stir-crazy very quickly.

The best solution to this problem is to decide that I’m working eight hours per day, from 8-4, or whatever works for you in terms of hours. Sometimes I break up my workday with an hour break in the middle, so I’m working from 8-5.

If I need to run errands, I might work 2-3 hours in the morning because that’s the best time to contact many of my clients, then get out of the house for a while and come back to it in the evening.

However, this is always scheduled work time. If I know I need to run errands, I work it into my schedule rather than letting it go until the last minute and blowing off work, then earning myself an all-nighter.

Treat yourself to a day out of the “office”

Working at home gets bland after awhile, so why not head out for the day? Pack up your laptop and work phone, and head out to your local co-working space, coffee shop, library, or any other public space that has internet.

You can save these days out for occasional days when you’re just bored and need a change of scenery, or you can build that change of scenery into your schedule and plan to go to the cafe every Monday. Sometimes the bustle of a new, busy space can be just what you need to break up the monotony of working from home, especially if you get to look forward to these outings once every week or so.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!

As tempting as it is to pick up your work calls at the dinner table, or reply to email at brunch on the weekends, DON’T DO IT! Are your clients important? Absolutely! Can their call or email wait until tomorrow morning? Short of a true emergency, absolutely.

You’ve already set your daily working hours, right? So tell your clients that you need to be reached within those hours, and if they call or email you late, you’re going to have to get back to them in the morning. You’re running a business, not dedicating every waking hour of your life to work!

If possible, you could also get a second cell phone and designate that number for work purposes only. When you get up from the computer at the end of the day, turn the phone off and leave it on the desk. Don’t touch it again until the next morning.

If you set these boundaries with your clients, you won’t need to chain yourself to your office chair at home quite so often — just from 9 to 5 (ha ha).

You’ll have the freedom to get up and do things at 5pm on a Thursday or 10am on a Sunday, and your loved ones will appreciate that your after-hours time is dedicated to yourself and your home and family life.

Factor in vacation time and personal days

Just like any day job, your job as a freelancer should afford the luxury of vacation time and personal days. This keeps you from burning out. When you come back to work after a weekend away or a couple days off, your energy is renewed, and you’re ready to be productive again!

Of course, treating yourself to time off can seem impossible when you’re working as a freelancer, since every dollar of your income is directly related to how many hours you’ve billed or projects you’ve completed. Time off means time not spent working.

This just means that you need to account for time off when you’re calculating your fees and accepting projects. Need to make $XX,XXX this year to justify a week of vacation time? That’s totally fine! Make your monthly project goal that amount divided by 12.

Put back the excess into an account that you only touch during vacation time. Then, make sure that you use that amount to finance your time off! Your motivation will thank you.

Offbeat freelancers and peeps who work from home: How do you keep sane when work’s keeping you at home?

Comments on Keep yourself from going stir-crazy when you work from home

  1. Telecommuters, unite! I got a skype number (I think it’s $4/month) to use for work. It works just like a regular phone number (people can call it, leave a voicemail if I don’t answer, it shows up on caller ID when I call a landline or cell phone from skype, I got to pick the number and area code, etc). But it only rings my computer! So once my computer is off, or my headset is plugged in but not on my head, I don’t get any more work calls for the day. Also, skype sends me an email (which I check on my cell) when I get a voicemail, so I know one has come in if I’m expecting a call but don’t want to be tied to my computer.

  2. Alot of people who work from home are not freelancers. The industry I am in, alot of people work from home once or twice a week or during two week pay period (usually Friday’s), so there is an expection that they are available from 6-230 or 7-330 or 8-430 via email with the exeption of lunch, which is usually 30 mins (if you are gone for 1 hr, they usually like to know). My SIL on the other hand, she works from home (she works in the health insurance industry) and she can work from a starting time of 0630 to 2000. But she usually works 8-430, but same thing, if she needs to do something at lunch that takes her two hrs, as long as she tells her supervisor she is going to start work at 0630 and is going to be gone from her desk from 11am -1pm and will be working until 5 or 6 pm her supervisor is cool with it. I personally like working in an office, but the couple times I have had to work from home due to weather, I still maintained my usual working hours. But there is a tempation to check your email and if you have your computer over the wekeend it is tempting to do “just one more thing” or check your email.

    • Yep – this stuff holds true for anyone who works from home, not just freelancers. I’m a freelancer personally and that’s the perspective I used when I wrote this!

      • Lindsey, you took out loans from me via reddit and now are trying to disappear and somehow get away with not paying them back. That’s called stealing. You need to get in contact with me to pay them off and deal with this like an adult.

  3. I work from home, but I’m not a freelancer and have to work very specific hours, with my daily tasks timetabled for me by the office staff. So a lot of those points don’t apply to me (much as I would love to pack up my computer and work from a coffee shop, or the park…) But getting out of the house every day is a must for me. Even if it’s just a quick trip to the store, or grabbing a coffee on my lunch break, or after work. Keeping the office space as pleasant as possible helps, too (although mine is a dumping ground right now) And it’s maybe even more important to take regular screen breaks when you work from home; I know that I had much more desire to get away from the desk when there were colleagues around me in the office, whereas these days I find hours have gone by since I last moved around, so I’m trying to make that a priorty, before the rot sets in!

    • This needs to get more popular! I’ll be happy when there’s a coworking space in every city or town.

      • Lindsey, you took out loans from me via reddit and now are trying to disappear and somehow get away with not paying them back. That’s called stealing. You need to get in contact with me to pay them off and deal with this like an adult.

    • This is something I really need to try. And in general, I think it might help me feel more confident about the freelance/working from home concept.

      This is a bit of an OT wandering musing, but maybe worth talking about:

      I started working from home when a great opportunity dropped into my lap after being laid off from a full time job at a big corporation. It was actually my first big corporate job (prior work was in academia and government) and there was a definite learning curve to the environment and culture of the corporate world.

      That learning curve, plus the lay-off, led to me feeling a little like setting up my own business was mostly bravado to hide the insecurity of being “not good enough” for a normal working world. Combined with some medical/neurological issues that affect executive function, I often feel when I am working from home that I am the spinster in the attic, writing my poems a la Emily Dickinson. I have the opportunity to apply for a job right now that is completely doable for me, may have some growth potential, definitely has a cool office and a decent work environment, and there are people there who already know me, have worked with me, and would put in a good word for me.

      Conversely, I have contracts lined up under my current “freelance” work that would comfortably take care of the next 6 months in terms of work load, pay, etc. Do I turn my back on these and go back to the work world? Do I continue freelancing to develop the confidence of what I can do? Do I utilize the techniques mentioned here (including the co-working) to try to really make it more “job-like” and boost that confidence?

      Honestly, even typing this out has sent my blood pressure sky-rocketing, because of the anxiety involved. But I am going to post anyway.

      • You do what makes you comfortable. Being a freelancer doesn’t make you a “spinster in the attic,” it makes you an independent professional who’s confident enough to market her own services and run her own business. On the other hand, if you’re sick of freelancing and want a lower-pressure job where the onus isn’t 100% on you to line up work, go for the new opportunity. Neither option is better than the other, they’re just different.

        I will say as a freelancer, I feel WAY more like a “real” adult when I choose specific hours to work every day, take client calls, head out to a coffeeshop or another coworking space and all of that. It feels more like a job and less like a game when I have to sit down at the laptop at a certain time every day and not just when I feel like it. Some discipline might help you feel better about it.

        Also, talk about your job! All of my friends and family think it’s the coolest thing because I’m not afraid to talk about my business and what I do. It definitely feels more real when I’m telling people stories about my latest project.

    • I can absolutely see how co-working would solve a lot of these issues. Unfortunately I’m tethered to my desk by the huge amounts of technology that I need for my (pretty niche) job. I do, at least, have company, since my husband does the same job, so we share an office. But I guess that leads to its own issues!

      • That’s awesome! My fiance and I worked together over the holidays last summer, since I needed an assistant to sort files and I hired him. It was really cool being able to sit down and work together every day!

    • I wanted to sign up for a co-working space, but it’s so damn expensive in my city. It would cost me $350/month! And we’re trying to save up for a house….which would mean I could have my own real office! That is not my bedroom corner or the couch. And putting $350/month towards a coworking space would only delay that dream…so I have to pass for now.

  4. My tricks are having set appointments during the week that aren’t work related, and that get me out of the house. Monday: workout in the park. Tuesday: hike with my bff. Wednesday: go to a friend’s house for dinner. Thursday: grocery shopping. Saturday: DAY OFF. Sunday: brunch and open houses. Repeat.

    If l don’t make weekly set plans, I find I’ll rarely leave the house. No bueno.

  5. Ugh! I have trouble keeping focused. I’m in grad school so I spend most of my days working on papers and other assignments. Which would be great if I actually did them. Instead, the dog needs to go for a walk or the living room could use some cleaning. I have errands to run or my friend has today off work so I’d like to hang out. And then when my husband gets off work, it’s nothing but fun and games! So, yes, I have been working on my final paper this semester all week. However, that means an hour or two of intense work followed by, “I totally deserve a cigarette right now. And maybe lunch. And maybe that last beer in the fridge is lonely.” I love “working from home” in terms of school, but I hate being my own motivator. Maybe I just need to relocate from the living room to the guest room and turn it into an office?

    • Definitely! Having a “work” space in your house is so important for working from home (I finished my PhD last year, so I know how it is…). Even if it’s just a desk in a corner, or a particular table you only use for work – working from your sofa or bed can really kill your productivity if you associate those locations with other activities!

      The advice about getting out of the house works really well too. If you can work in a library, office or coffee shop for the day once a week, it can really give you a much needed change of scenery.

    • I also work from home on an academic schedule (summers mostly). The separate space for work is a must. I have a no work in the bedroom rule (excellent) but my productivity is much higher (as is my focus) when I am in my work space (dedicated desk) than on the sofa.

    • When I was working on my thesis, having an office at home was the MOST IMPORTANT thing I could possibly do. I also did the “oh hello, dogs. Oh, hello beer. Oh, hello snacks. Oh, hello sale at banana republic that I am just going to look at because i don’t have any money.” My thesis advisor was very compassionate, but not a pushover, so she really drove me to succeed, and even though I ended up finishing my thesis in the summer term, rather than the spring, it was all the better for it.

    • Definitely! Having your own office is a MUST for motivation, IMO. I’d never get anything done if I was working in the living room next to my SO while he’s playing video games! I need a dedicated work space so that time at desk = working and time in bedroom/living room/etc. is break time or relax time.

  6. These are almost more appropriate for freelancers or those without set schedules. Like others, I work from home and have very set business hours, including mandatory TCs, etc. So, I find that I have much less “stir crazy” and much more sanity (I can get laundry done during the day! Throw a dinner in the crockpot) than I did when I had to commute. What I love–I can drop my daughter off at daycare and get a supermarket trip in without her (ULTIMATE LUXURY) before work. Target opens before business hours, so does Walmart. I know all stores that open at 8AM, because I don’t have to be logged on until 9. And I still drop my daughter off at daycare at 8.

    You are dead on about setting up work times–it is so easy to get dragged into email at 9PM, etc. I am very clear about having to leave to pick up my daughter, and that I will be absolutely unavailable from certain times–crucial during crunch deadline times when we really are working 24/7 to hit deadlines that may be midnight Pacific (and I’m on the East coast). The rest of my team is on Pacific time, and the majority of my clients are in Europe, so it can be a challenge balancing the email browsing.

    I also recently purchased a treadmill desk. Rather expensive, but absolutely awesome in multitasking, as I now am averaging 5-6 miles a day on the desk, or I stand rather than sit (and all my work is at a computer). I feel as if I’m stealing exercise time from work, when I’m really much more productive (aside from midday Offbeat sidebars!). And I needed it for my health, which, let’s face it, the sedentary desk job isn’t helping. This motivates me to stay at my desk and continue working. In the 5 months I’ve had it, I’ve wracked up over 350 miles–mileage I was not getting before or after work as a single mom. And I’ve dropped 15 pounds. 🙂

    Since my work often requires peace and quiet, I find that I don’t miss the noisiness of an office environment. I actually dropped out of a management-level position to work from home full time (after a year of four jobs and definite midlife crisis), so I also don’t feel that it is impacting my opportunities for advancement (as I have been told I could be promoted back to my other position any time I wish, but I don’t wish for the craziness again). It was an adjustment, as I had to step back and re-evaluate my hard charging, career-oriented self, but it was a choice I made for my family, and 8 months into it, I’m finally in a groove and loving it.

    • It’s great to hear from someone who did buy a treadmill desk and like it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot but really worry I won’t use it or it being difficult to type/think.

    • Treadmill desk – great idea. I am thinking of going freelance some day but I worry that losing my three-miles-each-way walk to work will do terrible things to my physique…

    • You’re right – I am a freelancer and my experience definitely isn’t the same as everyone’s. I’m glad we’re having these conversations in the comments so that people can share what works for them if my tips don’t! Freelancing is definitely a different animal than doing work-from-home customer service, for example.

      • Hey Lindsey, you borrowed money from me via reddit, and then deactivated your facebook page and stopped replying to my msgs. Pretty messed up. Why dont you get back to me and handle this like an adult?

  7. Assigning myself working hours is not a problem: if I want to get jobs, I have to be available during my clients’ opening hours. Losing a couple of jobs because I slept in was really enlightening, in a way, so now I work the same opening hours as my clients (9:30-18:30).
    That’s at least, because I also tend to work outside those hours and have longer working weeks than most people. But then, I also take more days off than most people, too . The legal paid vacation time in France is 5 weeks, while I usually take 7-8 weeks. I just like to think that I work just as much as anyone, but differently, in a more condensed sort of way.

    Coworking was really a life saver at some time in my life when nearly all my friends decided to move out of town, leaving me with no social life whatsoever. Now I work in a coworking office at least one day a week, with the added benefits of 1/change of scenery 3/talking to actual people 3/actually, making friends as our coworking space works like a tight community with lots and lots of external events, from yoga classes to running a 10-K together! Yay for coworking which extends beyond work 🙂

    My real problem though, is focusing. Focus! I can check Facebook about 100 times a day, and whenever something crosses my mind, I have the urge to CHECK IT RRRRRIGHT Now, whether it’s news-related, the weather forecast or a sewing pattern to do this weekend. Or the latest post in Offbeat Home.

    • Focus is huge for me, too. I’ve actually taken to trying to set up several hours a day where I turn off the internet (or go work somewhere without wifi) because I am SO MUCH more productive when the internet isn’t available. Obviously, this wouldn’t work with some jobs, but mine is flexible enough that I can put “reach me by cell” on my calendar so my coworkers know to call if they need me rather than email. And I get so much done!

  8. As several people have said upstream this is all very applicable to anyone studying as well. I’m halfway through a PhD and it’s all about the challenge of setting your own boundaries and motivating yourself.

    For me the separate workspace is vital as is going there straight after breakfast, ie once you have got up to wash dishes/load the machine etc then (physical conditions permitting) don’t sit down again until you are at your workspace. Get this one willpower challenge met straight off (hiding it in a routine lessens it’s power) and it sets the tone for the day and makes the others easier. I could sit on the sofa in the living room with a cup of coffee planning my day, sounds lovely, but then I face the willpower challenge to get off that sofa… Planning your next day at the end of your current one is really helpful too, then you know what you have to get there to do. I also don’t go and sit on that sofa for mid morning or mid afternoon break, going in and out of work mode is the hardest thing to do for me, it’s a direct willpower challenge each time to get back to work. I do stop for lunch though and leave the workspace, that’s really important and a treat as I’ve limited the sofa time. If I let myself use the living room to work in it’s not a treat to relax in at night. The reason the living room is so lovely and attractive is it’s precisely not a workspace.

    This all sounds like I’m someone with super-duper willpower but I’m exactly not that. What I try and do is use a routine and some rules to lessen the instances where I actually have to directly battle the willpower on open ground so to speak. Of course once you’ve sat down at that desk you still have challenges so it’s well worth reducing what you spend precious energy on before you get there. I find it easier to have definite work time where I use these rules and routine and definite play time, and this is helped by having different spaces (obviously whole other room is great but well defined area of relaxing space can work) associated with that. It seems like a really attractive idea to try and find a worktime style that’s more like playtime but then you’ll have a muddy grey area that’s neither as productive a worktime or as fun as playtime.

    And yes, when it goes wrong get out and be around other people working, library, co-working spaces etc, it’s like a system re-set button!

  9. For me, it was Boundaries. Not for myself, but for the other people in our lives.

    Hubs and I work from home, and sometimes get the feeling from friends and family that our time is considered less valuable than others because: ‘you’re home all day long!’
    It took me years, YEARS, to train my sister to not call me every Tues at lunch ‘to chat.’ We have a friend that regularly stopped by Friday afternoons. (We never had to ask him to stop because after a few times of sitting and watching us work for an hour, he started waiting until 5 to come by.) Hubby’s mother thinks nothing of requesting he pick her up at JFK airport in the middle of a work day. A close friend once called and asked if she could drop off her kid for an hour so she could go to yoga. (We said no of course!)
    WTF??
    I would never think to contact anyone I know in the middle of the day to ask for a ride to the airport, to drop off a kidlet, to hang out when you are bored, or just to chat. Why in the world is it OK for you to bother me at work?
    Once we started setting very clear boundaries with our people, things got much easier.

  10. Distractions will always be part of working at home. Television shows, social media networking sites, and phone calls are just some of these. In order to be productive, you have to be able to manage these distractions. Turn off the TV, close your social media accounts, and disable your phone alerts. Being able to do this will help you stick to your set schedule more effectively. Also, there are now technologies and systems designed to help those who belong in this line of work, especially in terms of productivity. One of the types of software programs that you should consider using is a time tracking tool, much like Worksnaps (http://www.worksnaps.net/www/). This service tracks the time that you allot for a particular task, whether it is an individual or a collaboration project. A great improvement in visibility and accountability of how you spend your time are just two of the things that you can expect from this unique and valuable service.

  11. I worked from home for about 6 months in my previous job and I have to say I wasn’t a fan and I am much happier in my new job where I work away from home in an office.
    However, something that hasn’t been mentioned in the replies but was touched upon by the OP (which had a huge impact on how my working day went) was the issue of getting dressed! I found that if I didn’t keep my morning routine the same as if I was going to leave the house then my productivity and motivation suffered. I’m not suggesting that people should put on full make up, heels and a business suit to work from home (I wouldn’t wear this to the office, anyway, as I work in animation where attitudes towards working wear are fairly free.) but I found that if I put on tracksuit pants, slipper-socks and a not-totally-clean hoody (VERY comfy indeed) that I wasn’t as productive due to being that bit too comfortable! My posture is even different if I wear baggy ‘indoor’ clothes (i.e. not as good). I had to really push myself some mornings to put on something clean and decent, brush my hair, etc but it was worth it and also helped massively with my self-esteem!

    • Hahaha! I’m usually good working in my comfy clothes or PJs, but that’s different for anyone. I will say, regardless of whether I’m working in real clothes or not, a morning shower is a MUST for me. I feel like a brand new person and ready to face the day!

  12. This is really timely, as I’ve just transition to working from home part-time to take care of my baby. (He adds another variable to the work-at-home equation, of course.) So far, getting dressed, trying to eat on a regular schedule, and being as productive as possible during his naptimes (and on my days in the office) have been key. I’d love to hear how other parents make working from home possible and enjoyable!

  13. This is all very good advice. I worked freelance from home for about a year but just ccouldn’t hack the persistent solitude and having to work as-and-when required or risk losing clients (such is the globalized nature of the translation industry). I enjoy the separation I now have between work and home as an employee. Good on anyone who can make freelancing from home work for them.

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