July 25

How to work better from home (even if overwhelmed)


As a student social worker, I wasn’t allowed to work from home. They thought I couldn’t be entrusted with that responsibility of working productively from home or left without supervision.

But with the pandemic, most of us as social workers are probably working from home today.

Here are 18 ways that have helped me. They have been drawn from advice from social work experts like Dr Jonathan Singer, the president of the American Association of Suicidology; practice educators like Siobhan Maclean, and university tutors.


1. Speak to your supervisors about your challenges.

You have to help your children for home-based learning. You have to cook for them. You have to clean the home.

You still have to do social work and attend to the needs of your clients.

Working from home as a social work is difficult. It’s not easy! However, supervisors might not be entirely clear about the challenges you face. Without letting them know, they might not know why you are struggling with work. They might think that you are not working as hard as before because work is coming in late or shoddy.

Having an open and honest conversation with your supervisor helps to make your challenges clear. In that way, there is healthy and constructive ways to move forward.

How to work from home

2. Aim to do 3 things, not 10.

We established that working from home is difficult. But too often, we hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations of accomplishing all the things on our to-do list. Instead, focusing on just 3 goals helps you to acknowledge that we are humans, not robots.

We can do anything, but not everything.

Thus, set out three goals for the day. 

J.D. Meier, a former Microsoft employee, developed this system as a way for his staff to be more productive. His book ‘Getting Results the Agile Way’ might be something you want to check out to find out more.

Before you start the day, set out three goals for what you want to attain. This brings incredible focus to your day, allowing you to say no to things that do not matter. More importantly, it allows you to hold yourself to account.

At the end of the day, you get to ask yourself: did I finish what I set out to do?

3. Understand what boundaries are.

What are boundaries? Is it about being being mean to everyone, saying no to them, and being cross and angry?

You might associate ‘boundaries’ with being mean and unkind.

But it’s not. It’s about being kind to yourself.

In Cloud and Townsend’s primer on Boundaries, they share about how boundaries are like fences with gates in them. This means that boundaries have 3 qualities.

  • They are clear.

Just as fences clearly demarcate what’s your property and what’s not your property, boundaries have that unique property of making things clear. They

  • They can be opened and closed.
  • They demarcate what’s okay, and what’s not okay.

4. Dress up for work and dress down after work.

When I was a student social worker, I used to struggle with the emotional transference from clients. I used to see a client with severe post-traumatic stress disorder due to the torture he had experienced previously. He would have chronic headaches that never seemed to go away despite the number of doctors and medications he took.

One day, I started experiencing headaches as well for no apparent reason.

Maybe you feel the same today. You might be exhausted, and work never seems to end at home! There is always more to do! 

When I shared this with my university tutor, he told me a simple tip. He used to be a approved mental health practitioner (AMHP), working with people in severe mental distress. To create proper boundaries between home and work, he would make it a point to change his clothes after work.

This helped him to put work behind, and remind him that he was home now. He was safe.

This seems simple and ridiculous, but it worked for me.

Working from home, tricking the mind into believing that work has ended through a change in clothes is a good way to start.

5. Have fixed locations for work and home.

You might struggle with this today. Your work seems to flow all over the home.

You take a call with the client in the study room. Then you type up your case notes in the living room. Your child starts demanding attention.

Having fixed locations for work and home ensures that there are good boundaries. Many times, the difficulty in working from home is that those boundaries become unclear. Your mind starts to associate traditionally safe and comfortable places with difficult calls you’ve had with clients.

For example, the sofa you used to rest on now for television now becomes associated with a  place where you have difficult conversations with clients.

Having fixed locations where you work and play helps you to contain work within confined boundaries. When we were working at the office, work used to be kept within the four walls of the office. You could mentally and physically leave it there after your office hours.

But now, when it’s within your home, what can you do?

You can contain it in fixed locations.

6. Build a comfortable place for working.

Your desk at work (even though it’s probably a bit dusty) is probably filled with things that you’ve come to love. Or stuff that you need at a moment’s notice, like stationery, paper, or clips. At home, what’s your desk like? Is it filled with things you need, or do you tend to work all around the house?

Building a comfortable place for working involves making an effort to contain your work within a certain location. You learn that work doesn’t exist all around the house, but only in certain pockets.

You also become less anxious, stressed and nervous when you’re working. You know that you have all you need at a moment’s notice.

Here’s some things for my desk that I’ve found helpful in working from home.

  1. Pen and paper to jot down notes and ideas
  2. A calendar to refer to for dates of next appointments.
  3. A diary to record my upcoming appointments.
  4. A water bottle to rehydrate my brain
how to work from home
Choosing discomforting environments to work from home? Not the best option.

7. Arrange a space for videoconferencing.

More importantly, what’s your surroundings like? Are you comfortable with them? As we face the advent of videoconferencing, are there certain parts of your room that you are uncomfortable showing?

Many people have tried using virtual backgrounds to hide certain aspects of their room. But as you’ve noticed, some parts of their face end up being lost during the videoconference. Or you might see other parts of their room occasionally fade into view.

The ideal thing is to have a plain wall behind you. This prevents your ear, hair, or hands from being cut off occasionally in the virtual background.

8. Separate your work and personal phone numbers.

Technology has made remote working possible. But it’s also meant that the line between work and home has blurred. You can now access your work email and messages anywhere, anytime. You just need an internet connection.

The question is: should you?

I would argue that you shouldn’t.

The biggest reason is because you want to be a master of work, not a slave of work. You want to control the work that is flowing into your inbox, rather than having it bombard at anytime of the day.

I’ve found separating my work and personal phone numbers useful in creating a clear boundary between work and home. When someone adds me into a WhatsApp workgroup with my personal phone number, I would immediately leave and ask that they add my work number instead.

I believe this is important to ensure that I’m not pulled into a worry at work when I’m out with my friends on a Saturday night. Knowing about it is not very useful, because I can’t do anything about it until I get to work again on Monday morning. I would rather not.

It’s up to you. Perhaps you can try it for a week, and see if it works.  

How to work from home
Frustrated at your work and home life balance?

9. Switch off your video whilst videoconferencing.

Being on video during videoconferencing can be very tiring. You must take note of what you do. Strange things you do with your nose are going to be captured LIVE on video. That can add to the stress of working from home.

Unless it’s an explicit request from your bosses or supervisors to switch on your videocams, keep it off by default.

It helps you to be more relaxed, and to take a step back from having to constantly perform in front of the camera.

10. Opt for the phone call instead of the video call.

The great thing about technology is that we can have fast video calls today, rather than slow and choppy ones. That’s great. But that doesn’t mean we always have to use the video call option.

In Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism (which I highly recommend for anyone looking to relook their relationship with technology), he argues that today, we use any-benefit analysis to assess whether to use a certain technology.

For example, I don’t use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Many people have told me to get on it, because that’s a good way to stay connected with ideas and people.

But if I weighed the disadvantages against the benefits, I would find that it doesn’t pay for me.

Read about ideas from all around the worldLoss in time used for long-form content such as books, articles and research
Stay in touch with friends internationallyLoss in quality interactions with people
 More easily distracted
 Tiring to sift through large reams of information online

Please note that these are the pros and cons as I have personally weighed them. You might not find it tiring to sift through information online. For me, it is.

Today, rather than thinking that the video call would always trump the phone call, look at it instead as an opportunity to focus more on what the person is saying.

Videoconferencing might not always be the best option.

11. Work to a fixed schedule.

In Jim Collins’ book ‘Beyond Entrepreneurship, he shares about how work expands to fill time. Work is infinite. Time is finite. When we put a limit to the number of hours we work, we start to focus on the most important things.

When I was a student, I used to work 7-day weeks. I would go to university from Monday to Friday, study on the weekends, and repeat the whole process again.

I nearly burnt out after my first year of university. I also didn’t do very well.

My aunty, a social worker, suggested that I take an off-day each week, and also ensure that I kept to strict working hours.

This helped me to become more productive. Rather than putting something off, telling myself that I would go back to it on the weekend after my scroll through YouTube, I had to do things immediately.

The more time we give to work, the more work we do. But when we limit the time we spend at work, we begin to realise that we focus on the things that matter.

12. Focus by timing yourself for 25 minutes whilst working on a big report or assessment.  

You are trying to work. Before long, you find yourself distracted by a random thought. You find yourself responding to a quick email that has popped in. You wonder what’s for lunch.

We’ve all been there. The days when a huge report or assessment is due… but we don’t seem to be able to focus!

It’s frustrating.

What can you do whilst working for home, especially when there are so many more distractions?

If you are struggling to find the motivation for writing the report, the initial activation energy can be overcome by setting a timer for 5 minutes. Tell yourself: I will just write it for 5 minutes. I can quit after that, but I will just start with 5 minutes.

Chances are, you are not likely to quit after 5 minutes.

This is a technique recommended in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, where he asks: what’s the smallest action you can take in accomplishment of your goal?

For me, when faced with a huge report, the 5 minutes rule has worked.

I will just write this for 5 minutes

13. Go on airplane mode when urgently rushing something.

The danger of working from home is that it is going to be VERY distracting. You have your kids to handle. You have to cook lunch. You have to compete with the possibility of watching Netflix without fear of reproach.

So what do you do?

Go on airplane mode.

Unplug your WIFI router. Switch off your mobile phone. Turn off the WIFI function on your computer. In that way, you get to focus on the work, rather than being given the chance to be distracted by something else.

The mind is tricky. When you are confronted with something difficult like an assessment or a report, it will try to find ways around it. That’s why social media is so addictive. It offers more novelty than an assessment you type out.

14. Timebox your schedule.

In Indistractable, Nir Eyal recommends that we timebox our schedule to be clear about what we are going to do during the day. This is important because it prevents us from going on an occasional scroll through Facebook, wasting precious time.

When we are not particularly clear about what we are going to do during the day, we end up being wasteful with our time. We end the day without knowing what we accomplished. Instead, when you have a clear idea, you begin to work more purposefully.

15. Rest your eyes by setting timers for rest.

I remember coming off a series of Zoom calls, lined up one after another, filling tremendously worn out. My eyes were tired after looking at the screen. My ears hurt from the earbuds in my ear for the past 4 hours. My back was stiff after sitting for the past 4 hours.

When you are working from home, the occupational hazard of staring at your screen for long periods is real. You need to take breaks from time to time to work more effectively.

What I find is useful is to have a watch beside me. I start a stopwatch. After 25 minutes, I stop and take a break.

This might help you to be more focused as you work.

16. Vary between virtual and non-virtual work.

 The biggest myth of remote working is that you need to be on your computer to be doing work.



As a social worker, your workday is often split into a variety of tasks like:

  • Case note recordings
  • Video calls with clients
  • Team meetings over videoconferencing
  • Emails
  • Liaising with partners over the phone
  • Phone calls with clients
  • Reflecting on cases

As you can see from the list of tasks above, the truth is that not every task needs to be done over the computer. Talking to partners or clients over the phone is not something done on the computer. Similarly, reflecting on some difficult cases and how you might move forward requires you to take a step back from the computer, and to think through what has happened.

Rather than spending the whole day on the computer, it is helpful to vary between the different type of tasks to rest your eyes and make your day more enjoyable.

17. Maintaining working relationships whilst working from home.

Whilst working from home, you might miss the occasional chatter of a colleague. The spontaneous nature of discussions at the coffee station no longer exist. You feel disconnected, lonely, isolated.

How do you overcome that?

Maintaining working relationships whilst working from home first requires intention. We need to be deliberate around how you build those relationships. Whilst you might not see them, that does not stop you from arranging regular sessions to chat.

I would suggest that you arrange a fixed time in your schedule to chat with your colleague, so that both parties can put down their work to focus on the conversation.

18. Have a shutdown routine.

As you probably guessed, I love Cal Newport’s books. Cal is a computer science professor. Despite this, he hasn’t allowed technology to rule his life. He has deeply reflected on his relationship with it. His book Deep Work explored how we can create the spaces for deep thinking in social work, to solve increasingly complex problems.

One of his suggestions was to have a shutdown routine in the last 15 minutes of your work day.

A shutdown routine has the following steps:

  1. Write down the things you have done for the day.
  2. Schedule outstanding actions for the future.
  3. Check through your email for final actions.
  4. Close your diary, and then say ‘Shutdown complete.’

Of course, the last phrase on saying ‘Shutdown complete’ is something that you can choose to say or not to say. But you get the idea. The shutdown routine’s purpose is to close the open loops in your work. It helps you to be clear about what you need to do.

Rather than worrying about something you haven’t done in the middle of the night, you can become more assured that everything has been placed in its proper place.

How to work from home

Want to find out more?

Toptal – Remote Work and Burnout


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