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in: Money & Career

• Last updated: October 14, 2020

4 Ways to Fight Staleness While Working From Home

A man with staleness while working.

Like the rest of the small crew here at AoM, I’ve been working from home for most of my career, and have observed that without the presence of coworkers to chit-chat with, breakrooms, or a coffee shop in the lobby, it’s easy to feel a bit stale. While lunch is a nice interlude in the middle of the day, I’ve found I need some refreshing mid-morning and mid-afternoon too. 

Fortunately, one’s ability to re-energize at home is even better than at the office — you can freely play with habits and routines without worrying that onlookers will think you’re a weirdo or a slacker  — and over the years I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways to shake off my listlessness and get back in a focused groove.

If you’ve recently joined the ranks of the WFH crowd, and have experienced the phenomenon of staleness yourself, below I suggest four things that have worked for me in breaking out of it. 

Preface: It’s All About Pivoting to the Physical  

It might be tempting to just take a mental break from your work, i.e., set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and cruise Twitter or Instagram, check the latest headlines (which, these days, is always a recipe for demoralization and/or rage), even read a bit from the novel on your desk. But these activities don’t feel different enough from your normal work to be sufficiently refreshing. As Winston Churchill said, “Change is the master key”; to really alleviate your restlessness, you need to break off from your mind-work to do something physical.

There have been plenty of days where I make it to lunch only to realize I haven’t moved in about four hours and my legs feel like jelly. As the body affects the mind, it’s no wonder that this stagnant posture leads to stagnant cognition. 

To defeat the staleness of your workday, you need to periodically toggle to more physical, senses-reactivating activities. I offer the following suggestions with that idea in mind. 

1. Do 30 Jumping Jacks

One of the best ways to fight your restlessness is to get your body moving and your heart rate up. I’ve tried a number of quick bodyweight exercises aimed at accomplishing that goal: burpees are too soul-sucking, push-ups require getting down on the floor and aren’t much fun, pull-ups aren’t bad but don’t work your whole body . . . the best full-body exercise to quickly get your heart pumping is the jumping jack. You move your entire body and it’s even sort of fun; for some reason jumping jacks make me feel like a kid again. I’ve found 30 to be an ideal number; it’s just enough to make you breathe a little harder but not enough to make you sweat (which you don’t necessarily want in the middle of a workday). Afterwards, your limbs will feel limber, and you’ll be ready to get back in the saddle. 

I use jumping jacks during work hours in a few ways: 

If I’m in the middle of something and know I just need a quick breather, I can do some jumping jacks and nothing else, and feel a little better. It takes just 30 seconds to do those 30 reps. 

If I’m about to get on a phone call or head to a meeting and need to sound and look and feel energetic, I’ll do jumping jacks to get my heart rate up, which helps my energy, my body language and posture, even my voice. I got this tip from Don Greene, who noted that you should get your heart rate up just a little bit before any sort of performance — be it a sporting event, musical audition, interview, or meeting. 

Finally, if I know I need a little bit of a longer break, I’ll start out with jumping jacks and then move on to one or two of these other tactics. 

Embrace the power of the jumping jack. 

2. Take a Quick Walk Around the Block

The value of walking is well-documented, including on this very website a number of times. In this context, a walk around the block is a great way to feel refreshed. It not only gets your body moving — no matter what you do, getting your blood flowing is paramount — but gets you outside too. The restorative qualities of the outdoors are equally well-documented; fresh air, sunlight, the sounds of civilization, and even a quick chat with a neighbor all serve to liven up a stale body and a stale mind. 

Get your feet out the door for just 10 or 15 minutes. I guarantee you’ll feel refreshed by the time you’re back. 

3. Make a Drink (I Prefer Coffee)

Sometimes a boost of caffeine, and the attendant time and effort put into preparing it, are the perfect way to get yourself out of a work funk. If you’re not into caffeine or can’t pound it all day long, it does also work to make a cup of herbal tea, have a small glass of juice, even mix up a smoothie — something that gets your taste buds excited is a good way to reactivate your benumbed senses.  

The best way to do it, in my humble opinion, is in a ritualized fashion and with something that requires just a little extra time and a touch of craftsmanship. For me, hitting a button on a Keurig isn’t the same as preparing a quality cup of joe. If there’s a set time of day you make a cup of loose leaf tea or, in my case, a French press coffee, it gives your pre-break self something to look forward to, and your post-break self something tasty to enjoy while you work. 

4. Practice Productive Procrastination

At the times when your willpower starts flagging, it can be hard to motivate yourself to tackle certain tasks, especially those which are difficult or tedious. 

Rather than fighting this desire to procrastinate, and pretending you’re still working, while actually just half-heartedly staring at a screen and distractedly flitting around the web, deliberately lean into it. But make your procrastination productive, by using this hiatus to take care of a few things around the house. 

When you set a timer (10-15 minutes is a good procrastinatory period) and you’ve focused your energy (by giving yourself permission to take a hard break from work), you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in a short time span. Do a quick kitchen clean up, mow the yard (that one’s for me — my small yard takes 12 minutes to mow), start or fold some laundry . . . you know the drill. 

You’ll get your mind off work, move your body around a bit, accomplish something that needs doing anyway, and return to your desk (or kitchen table) re-energized and ready to tackle more tasks for your job. Win-win-win-win. 

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