It’s happening throughout the world right now: people working indefinitely from their homes. I heard from a reader recently who’s gone from an office to a permanent work-from-home arrangement. For a lot of us, there’s no end in sight to this new way of working. I’ve kept a home office for many years, in addition to my clinical practice. Even as someone who has some real experience working from home, I can say, this experience is different—not least of which is because everybody else in my family is home so much of the time, too!
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that not all of us are able to work from home. Frontline, essential workers, and others having been going to work every day for months, enabling so many millions of us to stay mostly at home, or return to our workspaces partially and gradually. These folks deserve our attention, respect, and gratitude.
Today’s topic IS about working from home, which so many of us ARE doing. Specifically, I’m talking about how to create a home workspace that allows you to be productive and supports healthy sleep.
I’ve talked about how to create the best bedroom environment for sleep. Tending to your sleep environment is a core element of good sleep hygiene, and critical to maintaining a healthy sleep routine.
Our home workspaces need this kind of attention, too, to fuel our productivity and to help protect our nightly rest. Sleep isn’t divorced from the rest of our day; to the contrary, everything we do throughout our waking day can affect our sleep, for better or worse. How we choose to stage our work lives at home will influence how well, or not, we sleep at night.
BONUS: The tips I’m about to share with you for creating sleep-supportive, productivity-enhancing workspaces all apply to kids and schoolwork too! If you’ve got students of any age studying from home this summer or fall, keep these strategies in mind for them. In California, where I live, most schools will not be reopening in the fall. That means kids are learning from home, and that means parents will need to keep up their WFH routine.
I’ll talk more soon about managing sleep for kids and young adults during what’s shaping up for most of us to be an unprecedented school year.
Don’t work in your bedroom. But here’s what to do if you must.
This is important. Keep your work and your work life (emails, Zoom calls, Slack, updating your calendar, etc.) away from your bed and your bedroom. I tell my patients all the time: bedrooms are for sleep and sex. That’s it. Especially in these work from home times, psychological and physical boundaries between work and sleep are critical.
That said, I recognize that this won’t be possible for everyone. The reader who reached out to me about help with a home-office set up that wouldn’t interfere with her sleep is one of these folks, who needs to use her bedroom as a workspace. Here are my suggestions for how to make this work:
DON’T work in bed. You can zone your bedroom to include space for work, but keep your bed itself a work-free zone. This goes for everyone, whether you’re using your bedroom as a quasi-office or not. This way, your bed maintains its status as a refuge, a place of relaxation, pleasure, and rest.
DO create a designated work area. To avoid working on your bed as a default option, pick an area of your bedroom that you’ll use to work. If possible, give it some physical segregation from the rest of your bedroom. Maybe there’s a closet you can slip a standing desk into? Or a corner of the room where you can set up—ideally, near a window? Add a couple of floor plants to section off the spot. The idea here is to focus your work activity to the same, designated area of your bedroom, so the rest of the room stays free of work, and of the association with work in your mind.
DO keep a light footprint. Don’t leave work materials and electronics laying around your bedroom, even within the area you’ve designated for work. At the end of your work session, pack up your work gear and store it somewhere other than your bedroom. Staring at your notes for an upcoming meeting, or your folded laptop, while you’re trying to wind down—or get intimate—isn’t going to help your sleep or your love life. Make a ritual of closing up your bedroom work area at the end of the day, and removing your work life from your sleep space.
DO set concrete hours for working—and stick to them. New research from a team of journalists at the Harvard Business Review suggests what a lot of us probably have felt over the past several months: that managing work-life boundaries while working from home is one of the toughest parts of this seismic change in our work lives. If your primary workspace is your bedroom, it’s even more important to designate hours for working, and to abide them consistently. Waking up and grabbing your laptop from bed, grabbing just 10 more minutes messaging in your Slack channels before lights out, thinking about work as you’re trying to relax and fall asleep—these are just a few of the ways your work life can permeate your bedroom, and change how you feel about the space. That’s going to affect how you sleep, and not for the better. Set your hours and when the work day is done, make sure it’s really done—and stays that way until your next day’s designated start time.
The rest of these strategies apply to everyone, including anyone who is working from their bedrooms.
Set yourself up to get some morning sunlight
If your individual environment allows it, working outside for parts of the day can be one of the benefits of this work from home experiment we’re conducting. (The reader who wrote to me is NOT in a position to work outdoors—but this IS a good alternative to limit the amount of time one needs to work from their bedroom.) Whether you’re working outdoors or in, set yourself up to soak up some sunlight early in the day. You’ll boost your levels of Vitamin D, which plays an important, often overlooked role in sleep. I wrote about the benefits of Vitamin D for sleep here. (Many adults are chronically low on Vitamin D, and that has negative consequences for sleep. Here are 5 vitamin deficiencies that interfere with sleep.)
There’s strong body of research showing the benefits of morning light for mood, performance, health and sleep.
Exposure to natural light in the morning increases attention and focus, through a number of pathways, including:
- Strengthening circadian rhythms, which exert control over cognitive performance as well as sleep
- Suppressing melatonin, a hormone that facilitates sleep. Low melatonin=more alertness.
- Increasing activity in areas of the brain responsible for concentration
Morning exposure to natural light also lowers depression and anxiety and increases positive mood, helping us feel more energized and with a greater sense of well being, according to research.
Every one of these benefits can help you be more productive during your work time. They all deliver a second round of benefits when it comes to your nightly sleep. Morning light exposure has been associated with sounder, more restful sleep with fewer awakenings, and needing less time to fall asleep at the start of the night. The effect of early day light exposure on stress, anxiety and depression also play a role in improving the quality of sleep.
Spend some work time outside on your patio. Set up a workstation near a window that gets morning light. Paying attention to this seemingly small detail of your workday can deliver big dividends for your productivity and your nightly rest.
Don’t just think about the where—also think about the when.
It’s natural for most people to think about where you’re going to work from your home. But thinking about the when of your home work routine is equally important—and can actually help you determine your optimal home office set up. Your individual chronotype has a lot to say about your best times for work. I wrote earlier this spring about how our individual chronotypes are affecting the ways we live and work during the pandemic. You can also read all about how your chronotype affects every aspect of your life, from sleep to sex, in my book, The Power of When. (First step? Identify your chronotype by taking this short quiz, at www.chronoquiz.com.)
Broadly speaking, Lions will be at their most productive in the morning. Bears hit their productivity stride during the middle hours of the day. Wolves reach peak productivity in the afternoon and early evening. Late afternoon is also prime productivity time for Dolphins. And let’s remember, there are different types of productivity to consider. There’s the hyper-focused, analytical and task driven productivity that we all need to take care of certain types of work. And then there’s the more conceptual, creative, thought-driven and big-picture work that requires a different mindframe. For each chronotype, those types of work happen at different times during the day. Both your individual chronotype and the kind of work you need to accomplish in any given session can influence how and where you set up your work space.
For example, a Lion who needs to create a detailed outline for a presentation, with their analytical brain in full swing, will get their best work done between about 10 a.m. and noon. If you’ve got school-aged kids or especially teens in the house, trying to work at your kitchen island during these hours is a likely to be a recipe for frustration. You need a quiet, focus-friendly space. On the other hand, if you’re a Lion at the early, brainstorming phase of that presentation, you’ll do your very best conceptual thinking even earlier in the morning, around 6-7 a.m. The Wolves and Bears in your family are still asleep, your kitchen is empty, and a comfortable, productive place to soak up the silence—and the early morning sun–while you think through your ideas.
I’m a Wolf, so my peak concentration times happen in the mid- to late-afternoon. But I can do things like update my calendar and weed out my inbox during the late morning. That relatively light work I’ll often take out to the patio, or near the pool where my kids are likely to be. For my deep concentration productivity in the afternoon, I head straight to my office and close the door.
Every chronotype has best times to do different types of work. Thinking about the optimal when of work will help guide you to the ideal where and how. I always love hearing from you with any and all questions about sleep, keep them coming!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™