As I sit down to write this article, four days past its due date, at one in the afternoon, after scolding myself for wanting to take a nap literally three hours after waking up, I ask myself why any reader would want to listen to me talk about a healthy work schedule.
Hear me out! My struggle makes the need for this article all the more apparent… because I’m one paragraph in and about to take a lunch break…
Oh boy. I need help.
A Day in the Life of a Hopeless Remote Worker
I’ve been primarily a remote worker since September of 2015. Every now and then I’ve taken up a second part-time job that gets me out of the house and a few extra bucks, like tutoring or babysitting, or I’ll take a full-time job that almost kills me. Otherwise, I’ve used remote work to support myself through a cross-country move, a certificate writing program, and now graduate school.
Almost three years later, I’m still struggling to find the right work/life balance and a regular schedule. Mostly because every quarter I tend to introduce some major change to my life and schedule, and because I’m incredibly reckless with the amount of sleep I get (we’re talking 10 hours on the regular).
A lot of my day is spent in bed or on the couch. I don’t really do three meals a day, I don’t really leave my apartment a lot, and I certainly don’t get enough exercise.
And it totally sucks.
I often feel lethargic or fatigued, and get tired from completing a single errand. I once woke up at 11 a.m., went to the grocery store at 1 p.m., and took a two-hour nap at 3 p.m.… and that was pretty much my day.
January and February have been particularly hard, as I’ve been dealing with surgery and the unexpected complications that followed said surgery. So this article, which was supposed to be a success story, has turned into a reality check.
You see, for a while in 2017, I had a great work/life balance…
The Healthy Remote Worker
After the events of my hectic and work-filled summer, I dropped 40 hours of work from my week and picked up five graduate-level classes. Though I would have more time to myself, I knew that my mental workload would be much greater. I also knew that I couldn’t just sit at home in my downtime.
So, I looked for other places to do my work. The school library, various coffee shops, the desk that I built specifically for work but had yet to use…
And it totally worked! Instead of laying around doing work in my bed (and running the risk of simply turning to the side to drift off into sleep), I more than doubled my productivity and felt good about myself and the work I was doing. The act of establishing a set workplace not only allowed me a more normal work schedule but also led to a healthier lifestyle.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in my time as a remote worker is the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
That doesn’t just mean not drinking too much or doing drugs, but it also means making sure your body and mind get what they need to function.
If you’re relatively new to remote work, the freedom of not having to wake up at 6 a.m. or plan out your meals or commute to an office is a great feeling, but all of those things contribute to your health in more important ways than you think.
Without some kind of schedule in each of these activities, you may find yourself falling into bad habits and an overall unhealthy lifestyle.
Not having a 9-5 means that you don’t have to start your workday before 9. I’m a night owl, meaning I am more alert as it gets to be later in the day. Once 5 p.m. hits, I start operating at peak performance until at least 1 in the morning. That’s the same amount of time a typical 9-5 employee might be productive, just shifted forward several hours.
However, the problem with being able to dictate when you get out of bed is that you might never want to get out of bed.
There is such a thing as oversleeping, and I’m a frequent perpetrator. The long-term effects of oversleeping can range from increased chances of obesity to increased risk for degenerative diseases (i.e., dementia). And the short-term effects include increased inflammation and pain, and oddly enough, fatigue.
There’s also the opposite end of the spectrum. If you don’t have to leave the office when the lights shut off, then you might not ever shut them off.
I don’t need to tell you the effects of sleep deprivation on the body and mind, and it can be tempting to stay up an extra hour or two to finish editing that e-book chapter or add the finishing touches on that design. However, getting the right amount of sleep is crucial to your health and your overall productivity.
Go back to elementary school. Set a wakeup time AND a bedtime.
For some, this may be easy. Heck, you might already be doing this. But for those who are far from disciplined, you’re going to need to hold yourself accountable.
With my trusty iPhone, I pre-set multiple alarms that grow more annoying and verbally abusive as time goes on. And to turn them off I have to jump through hoops to manually un-set them.
For those who have trouble going to sleep at a healthy time, you can set a “bedtime” reminder in the same app. I’m pretty good about not staying up past 2 a.m., so that’s my set bedtime. If I stay up later than that, my productivity naturally diminishes and I’m super grumpy in the morning.
A consistent sleep schedule is important to feeling like a productive, professional entrepreneur. It won’t just help you feel rested, you’ll also be able to structure the rest of your day based on how much of it you spend awake.
You may not have the same strict start time, but imagine setting a sales call for 10 a.m. and missing it because you were up too late. Instead of a stern talking to from your boss, you just lost a potential client. Yikes!
Another idea would be to track your sleep with an app or a device like the Fitbit. If you wear it while you sleep, it gathers data on how long you slept and at what times you were the most restless. The more information you have on your body and how it functions, the better you’ll be able to satisfy its needs.
And hey, if this set schedule proves difficult, there’s always coffee and melatonin.
The general consensus is that you should eat three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, if you’re like me and you wake up in between two of the meals, planning what you eat can be awkward.
It turns out the research on how many meals per day is the right amount hasn’t been definitive. It’s different for everyone.
For me, the problem isn’t so much that I skip breakfast or lunch, it’s that I’m eating absolute crap.
Breakfast has never been my favorite meal… actually, neither has lunch. Basically, I’m only ever excited for dinner. Once my roommates wanted to do breakfast food for dinner, and it took a lot of convincing to get me on board.
So when I wake up, while I am hungry, I’m not necessarily excited about what I’m eating. Eggs? Meh. Oatmeal? Nah. Cereal? I guess.
I usually end up munching on a breakfast bar that tides me over until I’m not guilty about digging into some spaghetti at 6 p.m.
While that sounds ideal if you want to work without a break, the low blood sugar and hunger pangs that follow make it hard to stay focused — and even more difficult to stay consistent with a schedule when one day you’re fine and another you’re searching for things to snack on when you should be working.
A balanced diet, on a balanced schedule.
You’re going to want to get very attuned to your body, and more specifically, your digestive system.
Decide how many meals a day you’re comfortable eating, and whether you like big meals with no snacking or small meals with more snacking. Some people can eat and work, but try to give yourself breaks so you don’t have to multitask.
Then, do some research about the ideal caloric intake for your height, weight, and activity level, focusing on how much of your diet should consist of protein, carbs, and fats.
After living in my body for quite some time, I’ve realized that I have a sweet tooth in the morning, like something with a little kick in the afternoon, and something savory at night. And throughout the day, as long as I am consistent about my meals, I don’t snack.
I still love my breakfast bars, but I try to add a greek yogurt (with some sweet mix-ins) to up my protein intake and give me the energy to get going. When I get hungry for lunch (at 3 p.m. due to my sleep schedule), I make a panini. Dinner is where I thrive. I take an hour break from work and cook up something really nice, whether it’s pasta, a stir-fry, or a classic Southern pot-pie.
And because I allow myself the sweet, sugary things in the morning, I rarely ever do dessert. Dinner should tide me over til the morning. But you know I’m not perfect… so midnight snacks are definitely an evil I have yet to defeat. Luckily, if you’re proactive about learning the difference between hunger and a craving, you’ll be on the path to recovery, as I am.
With my meals taken care of, I can plan out tasks based on how long they might take and how I feel after eating. I tend to get sleepy after a meal, so I do tasks that require less mental energy until the nutrients kick in and I can focus better.
Meals can also help you keep an overall schedule. Maybe they’re a break between client 1 and client 2, or the only time you allow yourself during “work hours” to check social media.
When you are working 9-5, there is a level of physical activity that you are forced into. Whether you walk to work, or walk to the train, or just walk to the car… there’s walking involved.
Not so much when you only have to walk between your desk and the refrigerator (if you even have to do that — I tend to keep snacks on my desk).
There was a day in January where I walked 50 steps. Total.
It’s a wonder I don’t look like this:
While yes, that was a few days after my surgery, painkiller-less Erika didn’t do much better.
A lack of physical activity doesn’t just contribute to weight gain. Your muscles will get weaker and more susceptible to soreness, your joints will become stiff, and your blood pressure will fluctuate.
Humans weren’t built to sit around all day. And while it may seem harder, remote work actually lends itself better to putting in more of an effort to stay active.
The atypical day of a professional writer or entrepreneur means that you can take a walk around your neighborhood or go to the gym mid-day when it isn’t crowded with pre-work gym nuts. In fact, breaking up your day with physical activity can actually improve your productivity, as it adds something that isn’t work to your schedule.
Besides it being good for your body, exercise is an activity that doesn’t require a lot of mental energy. You can work out any stress, frustration, or creative blocks by focusing on bettering yourself and your body.
If yoga is more your style, attend a yoga class (which can help get your schedule more structured) or take a yoga mat to the park on a break. And if you want something more cardio based, kickboxing and martial arts is a great thing to add to your docket.
The important thing is to plan and schedule activity as part of your overall schedule. Don’t just wait until the desire strikes, because you’ll be tied up on a call or just need to finish one more project and you’ll never actually get around to being active.
Before surgery, I made a plan to go to the gym after lunch, then work on campus until class time. I found it to be invigorating, and it helped me get out of my apartment earlier in the day.
Plain and simple — I felt like a real, functioning member of society.
But sometimes you just can’t be…
When It’s Just Not Possible
I started 2018 with a positive outlook on my own work/life balance. And then, nine days into January, I was told I’d have to get my wisdom teeth out.
Because I was starting my second quarter of graduate school, I knew that sooner was better than later. If I could get them out before the work picked up, I’d be fine.
So 10 days later I was put under general anesthesia and cut open. And three weeks after that, I’m still feeling it.
When your life takes an unexpected turn, when you’re sick, have an injury, or even have a family crisis, a healthy schedule goes out the door. All you’re thinking about is healing and surviving the next day. So don’t be afraid to lean on your peers for help, take some days off, and do whatever you want to do!
Now that I’m starting to feel like myself again, I’m getting back into the swing of things, but I know there’s more work to be done.
Before I dive right back into a strict schedule, I have to make sure I’m fully healed and not susceptible to those post-weakened state illnesses (read: I really don’t want to get the flu).
I can eat solid foods again, so getting back to a balanced diet is my first task. Then, I have to start setting my alarms a little earlier again.
My ideal schedule moving forward will be:
- 10 a.m. – Wake-up, eat breakfast, prepare for the day
- 11 a.m. – Create a task list, start on preliminary tasks
- 1 p.m. – Make lunch, take a walk or head to the gym
- 3 p.m. – Work, checking off tasks
- 6 p.m. – Dinner, head to class
- 7 p.m. – Class
- 10 p.m. – Get home, unwind
- 11 p.m. – Work, check off tasks
- 1 a.m. – Get ready for bed
- 2 a.m. – Sleep
With school hours included, that adds up to a little over an eight-hour workday. With plenty of meals and exercise included, and some time for relaxation.
If you like keeping checklists and crossing them off, writing down a schedule somewhere (like a whiteboard or detailed calendar) might help you stick to your plan.
Hopefully writing my schedule down will make it so… we’ll see…
Get Back on the Horse
Life knocks you down sometimes, whether you are a remote worker or not. If you are a remote worker, it can be harder to get back into a routine when it’s been broken. But get back you must.
And get back I must.
When you work from home, you completely control what your day looks like and must hold yourself accountable, which is a lot of responsibility.
A schedule is one way to keep yourself accountable — but also to keep yourself sane. Whether you get into the habit of working 12 hours straight or go 12 hours without working, neither are sustainable.
Therefore, it’s important to remember the three most important things to keeping a healthy schedule: a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet, and physical activity.
Conquer these three areas of your life and I’d say you’re in a pretty good place.