Work–life balance tips for researchers based at home during the pandemic

With the outbreak of coronavirus, many early-career researchers such as myself are being advised or forced to work from home full time. In these circumstances, a good work–life balance becomes even more important — and even more difficult — to maintain.
What will help you is to try to get some sense of normality and routine back into your life, even if you are less productive than normal.
 Here are some tips that may help you:

1. Plan your day
Review your to-do list and make an outline for your day. This will help you to be more productive and focused in the time that you have. You can make the setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals that will help you to make a realistic plan.

2. Schedule your working hours
Aim to treat your working hours as if you are in the laboratory or at the office, and try to stick to them. This does not need to be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday, because you do have slightly more flexibility, but you will find it really helps to have some structure. Be kind to yourself when setting your hours. It’s a pandemic, not a work retreat. If you have childcare or other commitments, just try to schedule in a small amount of work per day (1–2 hours, say), and see how you go. Setting up dedicated times for work will help you to relax in your downtime.

3. Create a morning routine
Although it can be tempting to stay in your pyjamas all day, you have to find a morning routine that helps to get you into a ‘working’ mindset and mentally prepares you for the day ahead. You could just follow your normal workday morning routine, or do something as simple as having a coffee at a similar time each day.

4. Establish a dedicated working space
In an ideal world, this would be a dedicated desk away from where you sleep or relax, but during a pandemic you just have to do your best. This could mean using the kitchen table or even just a chair. Do what you can to make this feel like your work space. You can set up a space with your laptop, a mug of tea and your notebook and pens.

5. Discuss your work schedule with others
It can be a good idea to talk your schedule over with others beyond your supervisor and colleagues. If you live with other people, for example, it’s important to discuss how you will work from home, and perhaps set some ground rules to allow you to maintain your work–life balance because it helps to create some accountability, which helps me to stick to it.

6. Prioritize social interactions
At home, you won’t just bump into your colleagues in corridors, at the coffee machine or in the lab. Don’t underestimate the importance of these interactions, both for your own mental well-being and that of others, and for your work. Schedule times to catch up with your colleagues, friends and family. 

7. Take regular breaks
Just like at the office or in the lab, remember to get up and move around. You can try to limit the time by reading the news and on social media during the breaks, particularly at the moment, because reading the news on coronavirus can make you feel anxious. Keep yourself hydrated and try to eat healthily. Make sure that you have a good lunch break away from your work. It’s very tempting to snack all day when you work from home, but it’s not healthy in the long run.

8. Don’t be too hard on yourself
It’s not easy to work from home and being forced to do so by a pandemic is not an ideal way to start. If you get any work done at all, you are doing really well. The most important thing is that you are happy and healthy and, if you are not, there is no shame in asking for help. Your family, friends, colleagues and health-care professionals are just a phone call away. You might be in isolation, but you are not alone.

9. Remember to exercise and get fresh air
You can go for a walk outside once a day, as currently permitted (with some restrictions) by respected government guidelines. If you are not able to go outside, just open your windows and try your best to do some light exercise at home. A pandemic is not a good time to start a strenuous new form of exercise — you don’t want to have to see a doctor — but it is important to do something appropriate to your current fitness level. There are a lot of free resources online. You can also enjoy following yoga classes on YouTube.

10. Mark the end of your working day
As at the start, it’s important to mark the end so that you can switch off from work, ‘go home’ and relax. If you use the same computer for both your work and personal life, so you can make sure that you close your laptop, walk away and do something else before you pick it up again to contact friends or watch television. It will really help you to divide your work from your personal life so that you can relax.