As any year comes to an end, it’s natural to reflect on what the prior 12 months brought. As 2020 concludes, I imagine that reflections are somewhat different for most people. Not only are we reflecting on our experiences this past year, but also on the experiences of millions of people around the world who went through a gigantic shift. The COVID-19 pandemic, simply put, has shifted the world as we know it. For example, the word “mask” went from being something you easily threw on for a Halloween costume to an essential everyday item. No one will hear the word “corona” as they used to after this year and “work from home” went from a luxury to a requirement for some.

In a time of such uncertainty when rapid changes are imminent, many of us feel a significant sense of fear and anxiety. Prior to COVID, people’s routines at work and at home were better established. Boundaries were set and it was relatively easy to un-plug. Yet, as the pandemic shifted the world, it also shifted people’s routines and predominantly affected their mental wellbeing.

Work productivity is important in any environment. The introduction of the virtual work setting for those unfamiliar with it has led to feelings of loneliness, distraction and decreased motivation for many, which in turn has resulted in decreased productivity.

Days that used to be full of in-person chatter and lively conversations no longer exist and almost all communication for those of us working strictly from home is now solely virtual. The “good morning” exchanges while piling into the elevator on our way up to the office are now quick Slack messages. We can no longer reserve conference rooms to come together as a team and brainstorm. Rather, aligning on a project is now designated to a Zoom call.

As we struggle to maintain personal connections with our colleagues, we also face the universal challenge to carve out time away from our desks and from the work world as lines between personal and professional designated times have blurred more than normal.

Below are six steps to consider for starting your year off right by disconnecting from work to improve your mental health:

  1. Designate a routine

Developing a routine, even if not followed every day, is a step in the right direction to start to feel more in control of your day-to-day activities. Take regularly scheduled breaks throughout the day to disconnect and make an effort to step away from your computer to get coffee or lunch (if you can safely while maintain social distancing and wearing a mask). Block off dedicated times when you can call friends because they are most likely in the same predicament and need to be reminded to unplug. Routines provide structure that many of us need to be able to maintain productivity while allowing ourselves to disconnect and re-energize.

  1. Re-vamp your space

After months of presumably working in the same space (whether it is a small corner in your apartment or the kitchen table or your childhood bedroom), it’s important to revamp the space you’re spending the most of your time. By clearly defining your workspace, you will be able to train yourself to disengage from work when you’ve left the space. Set up your workspace for success as best you can in order to help you maintain your focus. Decorate your non-workspace with soothing, anxiety-relieving accessories to promote relaxation when you are able to step away from your computer or work devices.

  1. Set strict boundaries

Working from home in a virtual setting has blurred the lines of when to stop working or when to take breaks and it is no longer simply an ~eight-hour workday. Developing boundaries and rules for yourself about when to start and finish working is crucial for your wellbeing and ensures that you allow yourself a period to disengage from work-related tasks. Set times for when you officially close your computer, respond to emails or slacks, and stick to them as much as possible. Scheduling reminders for when to take breaks throughout the day is also a good way to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

  1. Forgive yourself

In a time of such ambiguity, everyone is still trying to figure it all out. Forgive yourself for feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about what you are doing. Allow yourself to not know all of the answers. Never undervalue your mental wellbeing. This goes back to designating a routine, allowing yourself time to just breathe and immersing yourself safely in the outside world. Invest as much time in yourself as you do in your work.

  1. Maintain connections

In these isolated times, maintaining personal connections both in and out of the workplace is key. When interacting with co-workers, remember they may feel similarly to you and might even need a reminder to take a few minutes to unplug. In an effort to build deeper connections, consider sharing a funny story, discuss your favorite television shows or simply asking how they are doing. Non work-related discussions will build important connections and a sense of camaraderie that will help you feel a sense of normalcy that may be missing in this virtual world.

  1. Explore new hobbies

Finding a new hobby to focus on after work hours will help to establish a clear boundary between your workday and time for your personal life. Rather than utilizing extra hours at home for work, explore different activities that may help you decompress. Maybe pick up that book that you’ve been wanting to read or sign up for an online yoga or cooking class. Embrace a side of yourself you might not have had the opportunity to explore before now.

There is no right or wrong way

Everyone’s work from home experience is different – there is no right or wrong way to structure your day, but equip yourself with the tools to perfect it for you. Productivity is important, but to maintain the productivity you otherwise may have had when you were in the office, be sure to set boundaries and allow yourself to disconnect and avoid burnout while at home.

Graphic created by: Autumn Von Plinsky