It’s been almost exactly a year since millions of people around the country left the office and transitioned to working from home. The fact that it’s been a year feels almost impossible, but the changes we have made to the way we work are going to have a lasting impact. For those of us who transitioned from being in the office full-time to working completely remotely, the changes we experienced affected not only the way we work, but the way we communicate, socialize, and relate to those around us.
For me, having a job was always synonymous with long hours, time spent at a desk, in a boardroom, running to Starbucks, or catching up with co-workers in the hallway (I by no means am saying that a job in this format is the only type, I’m just saying that it was my personal experience). In my mind, success was also knitted to those things -- to excel, I had to make work my number one priority. And living in New York City for years meant that this feeling was amplified. If I wasn’t working late nights and on the weekends, was I actually working hard enough?
So when everything went remote, I was forced to face a few things head on. The first was that I’d have to find another way to measure my “success” that wasn’t derived from time spent in the office. For me, that was hard. Retraining myself to value new metrics was difficult.
One of the first things I realized when I started thinking more about my metrics is that my preconceived notions about hard work, success, and being a good, “productive employee” might have been a bit misguided. In 2019 alone, 50% of the workforce reported dealing with burnout at some point. A few things can cause burnout, which include heavy workload, lack of control over your work environment or surroundings, or chaos in the workplace. Was I really “successful” if I was burnt out, stressed, and uninspired?
The second thing I had to rethink was my reliance on approval from others. When you’re in the office and constantly getting feedback from teammates, it’s easy to get caught up in instant gratification from positive feedback or congratulations on a project or a task that you completed. When you’re home, you don’t really have that. For most of 2020, I found it very difficult to balance my need for approval and validation with my newfound solitude.
This need for validation teed into my desire to be seen as “successful.” If I’m spending long hours or nights at the office, others will see me as productive, hard-working and accomplished. When you’re at home, there isn’t anyone there to recognize you for that. This was an interesting thing for me to realize because I’d always thought I didn’t measure myself or others based on “hours spent at desk.” But I realized that I was leaning on approval and validation of hard work from others.
A third, more obvious thing that I had to juggle was the act of separating work time from personal time. Since working and living all sort of merged into one, it was hard for me to understand when I could take time for myself versus when I needed to be working. For the first few months of quarantine, I’d work all day, eat dinner, and then get back on my computer. This was ineffective for a few reasons, but primarily because I never gave my brain a chance to relax. I was constantly on edge, checking emails and notifications, waiting for something else to pop up.
The challenge I faced with taking breaks or leaving my desk during the day all hinged on the idea of perceived success. If I wasn’t typing away at my desk all day, was I doing enough? Was I a good employee? Was I doing my job? And if I defined success and self worth by working hard, did working less mean I was giving up on myself? I wrestled with these things mentally for the first 6 months of remote work.
These are small problems compared to many other incredibly important things that have been going on in the world throughout 2020, 2021, and beyond. But it was important for me to address them. I had been programmed for years to act and work a certain way, and now that my usual metrics and recipes for success were ripped from me, where did I go from there?
I didn’t solve any of these issues overnight, but there were a few things I did that made a huge difference in how I treated and thought of myself.
I gave myself permission to take breaks at any time, any day - This was something that was actually quite difficult. But the more I thought about how I worked in the office, the more I realized that I took breaks all the time. To run to the kitchen and make a snack, to talk to a coworker, to run an errand. So why wasn’t I extending myself the same courtesy in lockdown?
Also, if I needed to take a 30 minute break to go do something to relax or destress, that was actually the most important thing. I could get my work done at any time that day, but by listening to my brain, I was able to re-train myself to understand that what I needed was actually the most important -- not what others needed from me.
I got some hobbies - This sounds ridiculous, I know. But before March 2020, I didn’t have many hobbies. Sure there were things I enjoyed doing after work, like working out or meeting friends, but there were very few things I was doing JUST because I enjoyed them. Enter puzzles. In quarantine, I really learned that I flipping love puzzles. Having even just one activity that brought me joy and I wasn’t doing for another end goal (to be more fit, to socialize, to see friends) was very freeing. It helped put things in perspective and helped me understand that there doesn’t have to be a reason you’re doing anything.
I let go of the “8 hour work day” - The 8 hour workday is dead. Given the fact that the human attention span is mere seconds, spending hours in the same desk chair isn’t realistic. But admitting to myself that the 9-5 was completely and totally impossible for me improved my mental health overall. This isn’t to say that I don’t work during hours outside of 9-5. But we’ve got to get rid of the idea that there’s a “right” amount of time we need to spend working. Some people work faster, some people work slower. Some people work better at 7 AM. Some people sleep in. Who cares?
I listened more - If quarantine and 2020 as a whole helped me with anything, it was listening. Because I was stuck inside with my own thoughts all day, I was even more keen to listen to others in Zoom meetings or over Facetime. It was the only social interaction I had! Instead of running around the office or jetting back from a quick lunch before a 2 PM meeting, I was actually able to sit and listen to the person on the other end of the line. This also goes for my personal life -- the power of really listening to others and learning how you can support and help them is immense. The more I listened to others, the better I also got at listening to myself.
This isn’t to say that I’m fully prepared for anything 2021 throws at me professionally. But I think many of us have learned a valuable lesson over the last year about the true meaning of “professional success” and how that dovetails with our mental health and working styles. What works for me might not work for you, and that’s ok. But I know one thing -- professional success is nothing without personal prosperity. Put yourself first.