I’m well aware that many people who follow this blog are not only self-employed, but also work from home. Having been doing this myself for 19 years now, not only can I not envisage any other way of working, but I’ve got a few insights that might help those who struggle with it. Possibly the biggest problem facing the home worker is the dreaded Cabin Fever – that sense of isolation and inertia that can set in when day after day you’re just staring at a computer screen, with very little human contact. Since it’s Mental Health awareness week, I thought this would be a good time to talk about it.
Cabin fever can seem quite a frivolous term, but I believe it’s a genuinely serious problem. In a mild form, it manifests in little ways like talking for 10 minutes straight as soon as your significant other gets home, and not letting them get a word in edgeways – you’re so keen just to talk to someone! Worse, it can cause you to procrastinate in epic ways, as you seek methods to get out of the house and simply avoid having to face the screen. At its most extreme level, it can seriously dent your self-esteem, self confidence, and if you’re prone to depression or depressive episodes, it can tip you over the edge.
I’d be lying if I claimed to have never suffered from this. I truth, I’ve had doses of quite nasty cabin fever in my time, although, I’m happy to report, very few in recent years. Partly this improvement has come about through simple self-knowledge, and recognising the signs before they appear, but partly it’s come about through following many of the habits I outline below. Cabin fever, like so many other issues relating to mental health, is best dealt with early, rather than once it’s fully taken hold. Prevention, as they say, is better than cure.
So, besides a bit of self-knowledge, and knowing when to recognise the creeping signs of cabin fever, here’s how I’d suggest you prevent it, and if it’s already pressing down on you, defeat it:
Above all, structure your time. This may seem anathema to someone who’s recently left an office for the “freedom” of self-employment and working from home, but it’s vital on so many levels. In the main, structuring and planning your time allows you to be far more productive – particularly little habits such as spending 10 minutes each night planning what you’ll do the next day. A good structure is also key to preventing the development of cabin fever though, as if you know that you’re only planning to spend, say, 2 hours working on your accounts, rather than “sit and stare at the screen until they’re finished”, it becomes something you can achieve, and then tick off with satisfaction. One of the ways that cabin fever can develop is when you assume that the only way to get a certain amount of work done is to simply sit there and just keep grinding away at it – no matter how tired you get, how late it gets, whether you’ve eaten or not and so on. This linear, one-brick-on-top-of-another method of working suits some things well, and you can expect a blog post soon on the subject of “flow” and deep work, but sticking to one task for hours increases the sense of isolation and monotony that cabin fever feeds on.
Exactly how you choose to structure your working day will be up to you – there are a myriad different methods, and an entire publishing industry that would like to tell about morning routines, polyphasic sleep, and other such tricks. I’d suggest you experiment with a few different structures – try working in small chunks, try working in big blocks, try saving all your admin for once a week, or doing 20 minutes of it every morning. Whatever you end up doing though, stick to, and enforce this structure – it will give you a solid foundation on which to work, and do a great deal to prevent that directionless feeling that heralds the start of cabin fever. Respecting your own structure will also increase your self-confidence and the trust you place in yourself, which of course helps to keep our old friend at bay. Structure is also vital in other ways….
Make time for things outside of work.
Timetable other activities, particularly physical activity. Sitting at home in front of a screen is not how human beings are supposed to exist. Our bodies were built to move. There is a mountain of evidence out there that shows how positive an effect exercise has on almost every aspect of our lives, and it’s kryptonite to cabin fever. Structure is key though – don’t just avoid work by going out for a long walk, or a run, but make time for it, and plan it into your day. Having 3 hours of accounts to do in the morning isn’t very appealing, but if you promise yourself that after lunch you’re going to go for a swim when the pool is quiet, you’ll be able to get through those sums much easier. Taking a walk, going for a swim, a run, a bike ride (hell, why not do a mini-triathlon) won’t make the work you have to do disappear, but you will return to it with a renewed energy and confidence. Plus you’ll be healthier, which is no bad thing!
Make time to see people. Again, don’t just use this as an excuse to spend all day in the local cafe, but actually plan into your week time for meetings (and take those meetings somewhere other than at home) and social/work events. If you can’t actually get out for some reason or other, and see people in person, then by all means use any of the methods of online communication, but of course, structure what you’re doing to some extent. I can assure you that spending the afternoon on Facebook watching cat videos is not going to dispel any feelings of depression!
What to do when Cabin Fever has actually struck.
If cabin fever has actually taken hold, then by far the best thing to do is GET OUT! I don’t care if it’s raining, snowing, or blowing a gale, put your shoes on, get out the door, and get some air in your lungs and some blood pumping through your veins. If you really can’t face the outdoors – maybe there are bears out there, or something, then may I suggest vigorously cleaning the house? It’s a pretty decent exercise in it’s own right, gives you a sense of satisfaction that can help to lift your self-esteem and confidence a bit, and it’s quite a worthwhile thing to do. Generally speaking, if cabin fever has taken hold, and you’re feeling your self-esteem, confidence and motivation ebb away from you, then you’re almost certainly not going to fix the problem by doing more of what you’ve been doing for the past few hours that got you into this state. In a perfect world, you’d structure your time to avoid it in the first place, but when Cabin Fever strikes, the best solution is to change what you’re doing. Einstein probably didn’t say “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, and expecting different results” but that doesn’t make the words any less wise!