How to Set Boundaries and Avoid Burnout While Working From Home

From taking walks between meetings to storing your laptop in a closet after the workday ends, these tips will help you establish guardrails around your work and stave off unnecessary stress.

GStock Studio/ Shutterstock
GStock Studio/ Shutterstock

Maintaining work-life integration isn’t easy in normal times, but it’s especially challenging in this time of blurred boundaries between work and home. That’s why, if it’s feasible for you, taking time away from work to rest and recharge can be especially useful – it can improve your energy and boost your focus, warding off the exhaustion and burnout that people are increasingly experiencing during this pandemic.

We asked our Thrive community for their go-to tips for setting boundaries and avoiding burnout while working from home. Which of these will you try?

Identify your top priorities in the morning

“When it comes to avoiding burnout at home, I find it helpful to first identify what’s important each day. Before you start your work, look at all the tasks you’re doing and review their importance by cost and benefit. Cost refers to the effort needed for the task: the time, money, and mental resources. The benefit refers to how closely the task contributes to your organizational or professional goals. The important thing is to organize your time so you’re focused on high-benefit tasks.”

—Armida Markarova, professional development coach and conflict resolution mediator, Chicago, IL

Carve out “commute time”

“I miss my commute time. I miss the potholes, singing to the latest pop hits, and stopping for my latte on the way to work. I also miss the ‘me time’ that allowed me to think and reflect as I sat at that red light. So I started blocking a half hour on my calendar each morning and evening for ‘commute time.’  I am reclaiming my commute time to minimize how much time I spend in meetings, calls, and answering emails. If I can’t be in my car driving, I can still sit at my kitchen table, staring out the window for a few moments of quiet.”

—Mita Mallick, head of diversity, Jersey City, NJ 

Add greenery to your space

“Adding natural elements into my work space has really helped to create a calm environment while at home. It might be getting a bundle of flowers from the grocery store one day or clipping some branches from the backyard bush another week. The details aren’t fancy, but the process of creating an aesthetic space to work in has really been healing for my mind and soothing for my eyes.”

—Marta Chavent, change and management consultant, France

Make time for movement

“To avoid burnout, I run! I have completed two virtual half marathons since the stay-at-home order went into effect. These had originally been intended to be in-person events in Nashville and New York, but were canceled and moved online. At the beginning of the year, I had set a goal for myself to run six half marathons in 2020, and sticking to that goal has helped keep me focused. The training runs force me to get outside, and the fresh air does wonders for both my mental state and my body. When my head is clear, I am able to think more creatively, which is key as a marketing and PR consultant. I can’t come up with great strategies, branding, designs, and creative campaigns if I am burned out. I have found I am better at helping others and better at my job when I take care of myself.”

—Channing Muller, marketing and PR consultant, Chattanooga, TN 

Start each day with a positive thought

“I’ve been making an effort to start with something positive every single day. I started an 8:00 am daily virtual standup back in March, where about 20 folks meet each morning with a single purpose in mind: Share one good thing you did for someone else in the past 24 hours. Not everyone can make it every day due to conflicting schedules, but as a group, we haven’t missed a single day. The best part is that the positive actions inspire individuals to keep doing good! One person would leave a goody bag for the UPS driver when a delivery was due. Another offered to help neighborhood parents by printing out their kids’ homework assignments!”

—Ashwin Krishnan, podcaster, Cupertino, CA

Take breaks

“I avoid burnout by defining clear boundaries, and I do this by aligning with my ultradian rhythms. As humans, we are hardwired to put forth optimal mental capacity for no more than 90-120 minutes at a time. After that, our brains need a quick break so they can refresh and get rid of the mental debris that has built up. This break can be spent making a snack, going for a quick walk, or simply sitting outside and soaking in the sunshine. Not only does this enable us to work at peak efficiency during the day, but it also allows us to be more productive during our working hours.”

—Carlos Hidalgo, performance coach, Colorado Springs, CO 

Establish a designated workspace in your home

“I’ve found working from home to be challenging because there is no set distinction between work hours and home hours. To avoid burnout, I make a point to ‘tame the flame’ by setting a designated area in my home just for work. It can be as big as an entire room, or as small as a certain area of a table. I also set an alarm to go off, which signals the end of the workday!”

—Anjali Bindra Patel, lawyer and inclusion and well-being strategist, Washington, DC

Take one day each week to recharge

“My best tip for avoiding burnout is to take at least one day of the week to switch off work entirely. Plan something fun with your family, don’t think about work, and if a new ‘to-do’ pops up, write it down, and then come back to it the next day.”

—Gems Collins, business consultant, Fort Rucker, AL

Keep your laptop in a closet after work ends

“Previously, when I left the office for the day, I would shut down my laptop and pack it away into my bag so that it was out of sight. Now that there are blurred lines in our environments, I’ve created a new way to signify the end of a workday and set boundaries for myself. Instead of packing my laptop into my bag when I’ve finished working, I turn my laptop off and put it in my closet. This prevents me from logging on throughout the evening so that I can enjoy my non-working hours.”

—Alyssa Swantkoski, executive assistant, Denver, CO 

Bookend your day with a calming ritual

“My husband and I used to have a weekend ritual of making a cappuccino at home. During the week, we didn’t have time for it. Now, we start each day with a cappuccino and have another one — decaffeinated — to close it out. Making cappuccino takes more effort than our usual daily drip coffee. Most importantly, it has created a practice to begin and end our workday. It’s a boost in the morning and a relaxing ritual at the end of the day.”

—Dena Lefkowitz, lawyer coach, Media, PA

Take “wonder walks”

“Whenever possible, I take what I call ‘wonder walks’ around my neighborhood after work. These walks help me relieve stress and transition between work and home activities by focusing on what inspires me. During wonder walks, I look for something that sparks awe. It may be a part of nature, or a person with a radiant smile. I always find something wonderful when I intentionally look for it, and this practice prevents me from carrying work stress over into the evenings.” 

—Whitney Hopler, communications director, Fairfax, VA

Pick your battles

“My advice is to pick your battles. In my case they are: showering at least every other day, making sure my son showers as well, and shutting down the computer at 6:00 pm when possible. I also feel that not having set obligations is the beautiful upside of this disgrace. My ‘joy guaranteed’ boundaries are: attending meetings while on the treadmill, having ice cream in the afternoon, allowing my seven-year-old to sleep in my bed, and hugging and kidding my son at any time of day. Could I ask for anything better?”

—Toddy L., cosmetics sales, Santiago, Chile

Map out your schedule for the week 

“I’ve found the best way to prevent burnout is to make sure my calendar is filled out each day. Each Sunday night, I complete my calendar for the week. I schedule my workouts, mark my start and stop times, and set blocks of time to get up and grab something to drink. I take a traditional lunch hour and usually wrap up at 4:00 pm or so. If there are international meetings, do your best to set boundaries and only add them to your predetermined block of meeting times.”

—Nicki Anderson, director of women’s leadership at Benedictine University, Lisle, IL

Walk the dog

“One of the ways I balance working from home is by making sure I go for a walk with our dog at the end of my workday. In my neighborhood, we have been permitted to go out for exercise once a day. I’ve used this opportunity to separate work from my downtime. It’s also a great way to clear your head and recharge after a hectic day in front of your screen.”

—Kelly Swaby, health and life coach, Devon, UK

Establish a nighttime routine

“To avoid burning out during this new season of working from home, I make an effort to focus on a consistent nighttime routine. One of the most important factors of my new routine is focusing on my sleep. We are meant to follow our body’s circadian rhythm, so this means waking up during sunrise and going to sleep when the sun sets. I always plan to sleep between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. I do this by creating nighttime habits for myself, which include turning off the television by 9:00 pm, taking a warm shower, and drinking tea. This all helps me to relax and unwind, and sets me up for a new productive day that is to come.”

—Victoria Franca, functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and founder, Miami, FL

Set a work cutoff time

“Everyone should be concerned about burnout because it manifests in different ways, whether you start to lack the motivation to show up in your job, you get frustrated easily, or you start doing less-quality work. I find it helpful to set a cutoff point each day where you stop doing work entirely. Switch off your computer, put away your phone, or simply switch off emails that come to your phone after a certain time.”

—Gems Collins, business consultant, Fort Rucker, AL

Eat lunch away from your desk

“I have a few activities that help me to stay balanced during these times while working at home. In the morning, I use mindfulness and meditation to set me up for the day, and also list my top priorities for the day. I also sit at the kitchen table for my meals, which is so different from eating at my desk, and it’s a great purposeful break!”

—Kathryn, pharmacist, Toronto, ON, Canada

Set alarms to check in with yourself

“To avoid burnout during this time, I have become more intentional about checking in with myself. I have an alarm that goes off three times a day, which alerts me with the question, ‘Are you creating from a place of joy, or are you creating from a place of stress?’ Each time this alert goes off, I use the reminder to check in with how I’m feeling and with the work that I’m creating. If I am creating from a place of joy, I continue to keep creating because that’s where my best work comes from. If I am creating from a place of stress, I give myself permission to take a break.”

—Dr. Nicolya Williams, life coach and author, Columbus, OH

Incorporate a signoff ritual

“I’m avoiding burnout by creating strong boundaries. From a space perspective, I make sure to shut my office door when I’m not working so that I’m not tempted to work. I also have some transition rituals at the end of the day.  On weekdays, I go for a run to mark the end of my workday, and on weekends we do a Friday night movie night with the whole family and make it special with popcorn, cocktails for adults, and mocktails for the kids.”

—Alexis Haselberger, time management and productivity coach, San Francisco, CA

How do you avoid burnout while working from home? Share your go-to tip with us in the comments!

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