Remote work not only changes your schedule – it also changes your brain. As we work from home, we reorganize the neuropathways we established in-office to make better sense of our new remote routine. With the help of professionals in the field of neuroscience, we’re now learning how to curate these neuropathways more efficiently.
Neuroscientist Tara Swart recently shared advice via video interview about training your brain to be more productive while working from home. We’ve used her advice, paired with further research in the neuroscience field, to learn the best ways to optimize your brain while working remotely.
1. Stick to a Schedule
Working remotely combines two distinct aspects of your life – the personal and the professional. It’s vital to separate your home life from your work life, even if they share the same physical space.
Preparing for your workday begins with your evening routine the night before. Make sure you sleep in a room that’s dark, cool, and quiet enough. Consider using a smell to anchor yourself to sleep (more on that in step #2). Also, try to fall asleep and wake up in the same one-hour window every day.
In the morning, begin your day with a ritual to avoid using too much mental energy on the mundane. Stick with a breakfast that’s easy to make and accessible, know what you’ll wear beforehand, and go through a predictable set of motions to get your day rolling. Oh, and please, change out of those pajamas before you sit at your desk!
Ideally, you should set aside about half an hour to transition to and from work. This is especially crucial when going from work to home life in the afternoon, so you can disconnect from your job’s pending to-do list and fully switch to family or personal mode instead.
2. Create Neurological Cues Throughout the Day
When you follow a disciplined schedule and complete certain actions at specific, repeated times, you create a neuronal connection between those activities and the time of day. Smells, in particular, are a great way to solidify this connection.
Neuroscientist Tara Swart is a significant advocate of essential oils to signal the transition between different parts of the day. Using these different scents consistently creates powerful neurological connections between a scent and the time of day, helping your brain switch modes and adapt to the different parts of your day.
Neurological cues are paramount when your body needs to wind down, whether in the afternoon when you wrap up work or at night when it’s time to hit the hay.
For example, if you find the smell of peppermint calming, you can put a peppermint essential oil on a few of your six key pulse points to signal the start of your nighttime routine. You can choose a different oil scent to use when your work day ends, and so on.
3. Have a Dedicated (and Enjoyable!) Workspace
We’ve all been tempted to get work done in bed, especially when those covers are nice and warm! While it isn’t harmful every once in a while, you must set physical boundaries between where you work and other parts of your home. Working from your bed could lead to a decreased association between your bed and restful sleep, lower overall productivity, pain-causing posture, and other negative consequences.
To boost your efficacy and productivity, set up a workspace you enjoy. You don’t need an entire room dedicated to a home office; just a corner or sliver to call your own will do. If possible, try to find a space that faces a window or gets some direct sunlight.
Setting up an enjoyable workspace includes choosing a comfortable chair, inspirational or calming decorations or plants, and keeping things organized. Ensure your desk, chair, and screens are also at the right height.
If you’re really optimizing the space, consider a standing desk or light exercise equipment to improve your health throughout the day. An under-desk treadmill could help you reach your daily 10,000-step goal. Storing a yoga mat nearby for easy accessibility could help move your muscles and get a good stretch in. Medical professionals recommend getting up and moving around at least once an hour while working at a desk. This reduces your risk of heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. It can also boost your energy if you’re bored, distracted, or fatigued.
4. Make Time for Others
Working from home has plenty of perks, but socialization isn’t one of them. Humans are social creatures, and countless scientific studies have concluded that we decline – physically and mentally – when isolated from our peers.
A key part of connecting with those around us is experiencing empathy, but this is much easier to garner in person than it is virtually. Anette Ermshar, a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, has explained how virtual meetings tax our brains. Because there is a lack of many nonverbal cues in the virtual world, our brains go into overdrive trying to fill in the gaps, prompting mental exhaustion.
So, how can we avoid this exhaustion and find the time to connect with others when working remotely?
Popping into co-working spaces is a great way to start. If you live with a partner or other remote worker, working in the same room could also help.
Those who prefer to get work done at home in solace need another strategy. Getting outside to walk in the neighborhood, going to a restaurant, or even heading to the gym are great options for soft socializing. More importantly, be sure you pencil in time with loved ones at least a few times a week for true face-to-face time instead of just a FaceTime.
5. Feed Your Brain
The connection between certain foods and enhanced focus has been studied for decades. We all know that a cup of Joe may be necessary to get our day going, but maybe that third cup isn’t quite as good of an idea.
To set your brain up for a high-yielding workday, start with a breakfast of whole grains, dairy, and fruit. Avoid sugary, high-calorie, and dense foods that can cause brain fog, headaches, irritability, and sleepiness.
When it comes to lunch and snacks, the following foods have topped the charts when it comes to improving focus:
- Fish (two servings weekly)
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark chocolate
- Whole grains
- Leafy greens
The key is to keep your meals balanced and, if possible, try to eat multiple smaller meals instead of a large lunch that wears you down. Don’t forget to pair your meals with plenty of water, too!
Balancing Your Brain and Remote Work
Remote work has its perks, but it doesn’t make it any less strenuous than in-office roles. By sticking to a schedule and incorporating neurological cues to transition between your personal and professional time at home, you can optimize your brain to get the most out of your day. Combine this with a well-set-up workspace, in-person interactions with loved ones, and a diet to boost concentration and you’re well on your way to an enhanced remote work experience!