What I Learned About Working From Home While Reporting About Working From Home

Five months ago, I began writing Bloomberg Businessweek’s guide to staying productive and sane while working from home. Dealing with the sane part quickly became a priority as workers hit a wall of exhaustion, the early calling card of burnout. To better understand how different people cope when pushed to the max, I interviewed folks who thrive in intense, isolated, repetitive jobs, including an astronaut, a Paralympic triathlete, a Buddhist priest, an Antarctic field manager, and a merchant mariner. I was surprised to find a common thread in their strategies for survival.

All of them seem to be well-rested, calm people. They maintain that level of chill because they stick to schedules that incorporate exercise, sleep, and creative outlets. “Just figure out something you could do every day, forever,” said astronaut Michael Barratt, who spent six and a half months aboard the International Space Station.

They share other behaviors, such as doing that exercising at midday (“It’s like hitting a reset button,” said Antarctic camp manager Anne Beaulaurier); tight e-communication with a handful of loved ones (“Have people that just know to reach out to you,” said merchant mariner Jullian Woods); and a penchant for staying off social media (“Too much drama,” said long-haul trucker Anthony Visuano).

As a journalist, I know the thesis of a story is solid when my interviews get repetitive. Reporting on burnout, I found that everyone, no matter the field, has the same secrets. They speak of integrating creative outlets into work and nurturing the ability to enjoy unexciting tasks while plugging into a deeper sense of why you’re doing them. “That can really get you through rough patches,” said triathlete Hailey Danz.

High-productivity people are also good at taking breaks. Multiple experts insisted on taking short pauses that engage their mind and body differently from their work, such as 10 minutes of playing music, reading, making a sandwich, chatting up a neighbor, or doing dishes. I am nothing if not coachable: I now pick up my ukulele to belt out Comfortably Numb in the minutes I have between interviews; I text college friends with the intensity of a crisis hotline worker; and I land on my faux-Peloton bike most afternoons (“Children, prepare to watch Mommy dominate the leader board”).

The overriding consensus is that our current “conditions aren’t ideal for everyone,” Beaulaurier said. Um, yeah. As I was writing this article, my 6-year-old’s baking project went south, and rather than locating her pants as requested, my 4-year-old feigned interest in a shoe, telling me, “Mommy, it is rude to interrupt your daughter while she’s doing something.” Beaulaurier’s advice: Respond to interactions with “not-super-easy personalities … with a lot grace.”

That was my mantra until I interviewed a Buddhist priest from Oregon who meditates twice daily—and then for a full week every month. The key to avoiding burnout, he said, is to “get in touch with the aspect of ourselves that is not burnt out and cannot be burnt out.” That part of me is still alive, thankfully, and it probably is for you, too.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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