Last week on a call with a colleague to arrange the date for our next virtual meeting, we both had trouble remembering what day it was. “The days are all merging into one” she said.
That’s what happens when defining structures are removed. It’s a bit like going on a sun holiday when everyday you just get up at whatever time takes your fancy, have breakfast, stroll to the beach and hit the recliner with your latest novel. The hours and the days tick by pleasantly. (Ooh that’s lovely daydream!)
Only problem of course is that we’re not on holiday nor are we likely to be any time soon. We’re in uncharted waters. Many of the familiar structures and routines that kept us anchored and on track have gone. If you’re amongst the fortunate who still have work, then maybe you’re adjusting to working fulltime at home. Even if you worked from home before the crisis, you may be finding it hard to settle when your partner and kids are around all day.
You no longer have the push to get yourself and the kids out of the house by a particular time. The synergy of working directly with others is gone. You don’t have the stimulus of different physical and social settings to bring variety throughout the day and week. It’s harder to ‘go to work’ when physically staying at home everyday.
As lovely as it might feel (at first) to be able to work from your laptop in your PJs, allowing the days to merge into one is not a good idea. Routines and structures are important for emotional and mental health – that’s why people coming up to retirement are recommended to prepare for their freedom by establishing new structures.
Working from home, you need ways to stay productive on work days, rest and refresh at the weekend and stay physically and mentally in good shape throughout.
This is where good sleep comes in. Sleep thrives on consistent and regular routines and without these it’s easy to drift into poor sleep habits. Added to this are of course the concerns you may have about finances and the health and wellbeing of your family and friends.
Sleep and worry make very bad bed fellows.
How do you maintain good sleep health when your world has changed? Here are 5 practical steps:
1. Stick to your normal weekday wake up and bed times. In fact I’d recommend that the whole family did this – kids included. If you let your bedtime slide you’ll either find yourself needing a lie-in or an afternoon nap. This will undermine the body’s natural sleep drive making it harder to drop off. Keep lie-ins for the weekend (a good way to differentiate between work and play days) and if you’re someone who struggles to sleep well then limit them to just one hour.
2. Take advantage of the fact that you’re allowed out once a day for exercise. It’s actually quite weird but I find myself paying more attention to getting outside than I did before the restrictions! There’s nothing like the threat of scarcity to ramp up your motivation. This is an ideal opportunity to get a new exercise habit. As well as providing a much needed change of scene and keeping you healthy, exercise is great for sleep. It helps you to manage stress, release physical and emotional tension and keep things in perspective. Natural daylight is also essential to regulate the master body clock in the brain. This in turn optimises a whole host of physiological processes including your sleep-wake cycle ensuring that you feel sleepy at the appropriate time at night. If you do cardio, then experiment with the timing – too close to bedtime and it may delay sleep.
3. Confront your worries. When you’ve got a lot on your plate, it’s easy to fall into a coping strategy of keeping super busy during the day. When your head hits the pillow however, these worries will have a field day. Much better to actively deal with worries during the day so that you can keep the evenings and nights free for relaxation and sleep. This takes a bit of practice. One way that works for many is to have a Thinking or Worry Time each day. Put a timer on for 20 minutes, grab pen and paper and write down everything that’s on your mind.
Review your list and see if there are practical steps you can take. If so decide what they are and schedule a specific time to take them.When the timer sounds, put your notes away, out of sight. If you start to worry later in the day or when you’re in bed, remind yourself that you’ve had your Thinking Time for the day and you’ll return to it tomorrow.
4. Learn a breathing exercise. This can be as simple as consciously taking 3 deeper, slower breaths. Or the Box Breath technique, where you breathe in for a count of 4, pause for 4, breathe out for 4, pause for 4. Breathing in this way sends a message to the brain that all’s well. Use this whenever you feel overwhelmed, at night when you want to sleep and during the working day to help you maintain focus and productivity.
5. Set boundaries for your working day. I’m finding that because I’m at home all the time, my to-do list – both work and household tasks – is getting bigger and bigger. It’s as if I’m telling myself that I have more time therefore I should be doing more. Of course I do have more time as I’m not going to meetings or travelling to see clients. But what I’ve gained in work time I’ve lost in relaxation, social and entertainment opportunities. So you need to protect the time you used to spend outside the home that helped you to maintain a healthy work-life balance – the gym sessions, going for a drink with friends, chatting to colleagues at lunchtime. Resist the temptation to allocate work to all this freed up time! Otherwise you’re likely to fall into bed tired but wired. Find other non-work activities to keep that balance. Establish regular working hours and then properly switch off and relax.
Take the last 20 minutes of your working day to draw a line. Make your list of tasks for the next day, things you need to remember and so on and then mentally and physically leave work behind.
These are simple strategies but simple doesn’t always mean easy! Nevertheless they are surprisingly effective. Why not decide now to introduce these routines into your day?
I’d love to hear your experience so please also share what’s working for you.
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