Why self-control makes working from home draining

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
Rear view of a businesswoman having a meeting with team over a video conference in office board room. Meeting over a video call in office post pandemic lockdown.
While 69% were in favour of continued home working, more than a third suffered from exhaustion during lockdown. Photo: Getty

Working from home can be challenging. Although it means an end to commuting and smelling your colleagues’ lunches, remote work requires a certain level of self-discipline. While offices and other traditional work environments are set up for us to work effectively, our home environments aren’t.

Not only do we have to draw clearer boundaries between our personal and professional lives, working from home also requires us to resist distractions like housemates, partners, pets and Netflix. We have to stay motivated when the sun is out — and remain engaged and productive when working alone.

All of this requires self-control, which can be mentally exhausting. So it’s no wonder that home-workers are reporting feeling increasingly fatigued, according to a survey of employees from 133 companies by the employee engagement firm Wildgoose.

While 69% were in favour of continued home working, more than a third suffered from exhaustion during lockdown.

Much like sticking to a diet can be draining, the self-control and discipline required to work from home can be exhausting too. But why?

“There are more distractions when working from home, whether that be tidying up, going to the shops or checking out a new TV show,” says Gemma Leigh Roberts, an organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge.

“Exercising self-control and re-adjusting focus can be psychologically exhausting, and as energy levels are depleted, self-control becomes harder, which leads to a vicious cycle.”

Every day, we wake up with many different decisions to make. We weigh up whether to have fruit or toast for breakfast, whether to reply to an email or which project to start on. And when our work routine changes, such as the shift to home-working, we may find ourselves with even more decisions to make. This can leave us with decision fatigue.

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Coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, decision fatigue occurs after a long session of decision-making. Over time, the many choices we make exhaust our ability to think. Our self-control can get worn down and fatigue just like a muscle, leaving us feeling mentally drained.

Staying focused on work also requires more effort when working from home. When working in an office, our homes are solely places to relax and unwind. Since the pandemic, however, they’ve become our workplaces too.

“We’re also dealing with a new working landscape where Zoom fatigue, lack of social contact and very blurred lines between home and work life can cause both physical and psychological exhaustion,” says Roberts.

“Each of these factors is a challenge in itself and combined can be overwhelming. It’s important to take time to focus on self-care and rest.”

Of course, having self-control can have positive outcomes. With remote workers putting in longer hours during the Covid-19 pandemic, being disciplined can help us switch off from work. It can also prevent us from checking our emails out-of-hours, or stop us working late into the night. However, this self-control can still deplete our mental energy - which means it’s even more important to take time to recharge.

Research suggests our brains work best when we alternate periods of focus and non-focus which helps to boost creativity and resilience,” says Roberts. “The issue when working from home is it can be hard to re-engage with focused work after taking a break.”

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In an office environment, we might take a break from focusing on work with a walk, a coffee or a chat with a coworker. At work, however, there are a myriad of activities we can get stuck into. “And because of all the choices we have, it can be difficult to get back to focused work,” says Roberts.

She recommends using a strategy called the Pomodoro technique to switch between focused and unfocused time. Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, it involves working on a task for a solid 25 minutes without distraction, then taking a break for five minutes before continuing the task or starting a new activity.

“Every four sections, you take a longer break,” explains Roberts. “This takes away the choice element of switching between focus and non-focused time, you follow the routine, which can make the process easier, as making conscious choices also depletes energy.”

And to combat exhaustion, stress and burnout, it’s important to take regular breaks and switch off from work. Hiding your laptop, turning off your phone or making sure your work is out of sight from 6pm will help you feel more rested and ready for the next day.

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