The “Work-from-Home Sleep Shift” and How to Fix It
By Dr. Kate Henry
In this article:
Working from home can cause your sleep pattern to change. You might find that you’re suddenly staying up later, sleeping in more, or wide-awake hours before you planned. There are valid reasons for the shift in schedule that happens when you transition from working in an office to working from home. Luckily, there are healthy, evidence-based ways to reset your sleep rhythm and still stay productive during the workday.
Interruptions and Dispersed Productivity
When you work from home, you’re simply more likely to be interrupted by the day-to-day things that normally pull your attention away from work. Bills, kids, partners, shopping, chores—demands that used to be physically separated from you during work hours are now very close by. On the way to the kitchen for lunch or a drink of water, for example, you may notice mail that needs to be addressed or a household member may ask you for help or even just want to talk.
As a result, work takes longer and happens in short spurts throughout the day rather than during a few concentrated hours. Your normal 8-hour schedule might have begun to look less like 9-5 and more like this:
- 9:15 am-10:45 am
- 11:30 am-1:00 pm
- 1:45 pm-2:45 pm
- 3:15 pm-4:15 pm
- 6:15 pm-7:00 pm
- 8:45 pm-10:45 pm
It should be said that this is totally and completely okay. Dispersed vs. condensed productivity are just different ways of working. Dispersed productivity allows you to be flexible and meet your family and personal needs throughout the day without having to maintain overly rigid boundaries that can strain relationships.
What does need to happen if you are working under the dispersed model is that you need to train your brain to be able to quickly start to concentrate when you do return to work. You can accomplish this by taking a deep breath when you finally sit at your desk, having a certain playlist that goes on when you need to concentrate, and maintaining a separate space in your home where you work stays. You can also create a healthy ritual around getting back to work that can involve sipping a certain herbal tea, or smelling a specific essential oil. Creating habits like this will help train your brain to get right back into work mode when you need it to. I give more tips for being your most productive when it counts below.
Work and Sleep Space Start Overlapping
A pinnacle of sleep hygiene theory is that you should not work or play where you sleep. Using your bed—and preferably the whole bedroom—for sleep and sleep alone keeps our brains from becoming confused about what it should be doing when you lie down to rest at night.
Many of us are not fortunate enough to have a separate office space at home. That often means we end up working out of the bedroom. Even if this is true for you, there are still ways to use sleep hygiene to your advantage. I share a few hacks further down in the article. Keep reading!
The Need for Alone Time
If you’re cohabitating, staggering sleep shifts can allow you to capitalize on space and time in the house without interruption. You wake up early to use the home office while your partner sleeps, for example, and they can stay up late to finish up projects at the end of the day when you’re tired. This is fine and even smart as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of quality sleep. If not done intentionally, you just wind up staying awake after everyone else in the home goes to bed, working until your project is done without any real bedtime. This can lead to sleep deprivation over time, which is a problem for health because sleep is a crucial aspect of immunity, recovery, cognition, and performance. You have to sleep enough to be the best version of yourself.
If you want to adjust your bedtime and sleep more soundly throughout the night, here are some natural ways to do it.
Sleep hygiene is a name for a variety of practices and environmental changes that people can modify in order to promote optimal sleep. Having a room that’s dark, cool, and quiet, for example, is proven to help people obtain deeper and higher quality sleep at night. If your room is bright, you can darken it by using light-blocking curtains, and by turning off any electronics you can before bed. If that’s not possible, invest in a sleep mask to cover your eyes while you rest.
If you don’t have the quietest space to sleep in, consider investing in some earplugs to use for sleep; the higher the NRR rating, the better. Keep your room at a comfortable temperature; if you’ve been sleeping poorly, try changing the ambient temperature a few degrees warmer or cooler as an experiment and notice if it helps.
For many people, work ends when the workday is over around 5:00 pm. They put down what they’re working on and head home for the day. But when your work lives in your home, that can be hard to do. If you’re still operating under the 8-hour-workday mandate, you can end up staying up late to make up for extra “time” you skipped out on during your old work hours of 9-5. Evidence suggests, however, that this is the least effective way to accomplish tasks. Rather than tracking hours you put in throughout the day, experts suggest creating a list of goals for the day and quitting once they’re done. If you used to do three meetings and two reports on Mondays, quit after you accomplish those things at home rather than waiting until you’ve hit the 8-hour mark.
Additionally, set a time for yourself to put down work no matter what. It might be 10:00 pm, 8:00 pm or 5:00 pm depending on your workload. No matter the time, try to stick to it consistently. This will help your body know when to start relaxing at night.
If you end up having to work in your bedroom, turn your desk away from your bed so you’re not looking at or sitting in your bed while you work. Don’t have your bed facing your desk, either, if possible. You don’t want to be staring at a desk full of unfinished work while you’re trying to rest.
Consider really treating yourself to an upgrade of your sleep and workspaces as well, if you plan to work from home for a long time. A few extra pillows can help transform your bed into a couch-space during the day to trick your brain into thinking you’re no longer in your bedroom. You might also invest in some drawers to store your work papers when you’re done using them for the day so that they’re out of sight. Changing the lighting in the room during the day versus the way you light it at night is another option. The possibilities are endless and can be cheap. Have fun with it. Both work and sleep are important. You deserve beautiful spaces to do both.
Shift exercise to earlier in the day. Evidence shows that exercising after dinner can give you a boost in wakefulness-promoting neurochemicals that can keep you up late into the night. The other benefit of working out earlier is that it will help give you energy and boost focus during the day.
A good nighttime routine starts about two hours before you want to fall asleep. If your goal is to wake up by 6:00 am, then set a gentle reminder or alarm on your phone for 8:00 pm so you can start to wind down for a 10:00 pm bedtime. At 8:00 pm, you should put away electronics or don blue light blocking glasses or screens to signal to your brain that it’s time for bed.
Next, use a combination of temperature, food, and beverages to help signal to your brain that it’s time to rest. Take a warm shower or bath to relax muscle tension and promote relaxation. You can add bath products that contain calming scents like lavender and orange to the bath or shower to enhance the relaxing effect. Consider a small snack that’s balanced with protein, fat, and low-glycemic carbohydrates before bed to help you sleep more soundly. You can also ask your doctor about taking 1mg of melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime to signal to your brain.
The process of going to bed should be enjoyable—preferably something you look forward to. This will help you do it with ease when it’s time.
For the above tips to be effective, you really have to be on your game when you sit down to work. Remember the advice above about creating a mini-ritual to pull your brain quickly into work mode (with a specific tea, beverage, or scent). You can also time your meals and supplements strategically to give you the most ability to focus when you otherwise might be the most distracted. A good example of this is the 10:00 am-11:00 am and 3:00 pm-4:00 pm slump many people report during the workday. To counter this, keep a healthy snack nearby to fuel your brain or take supplements that contain stimulating vitamins like B12 at that time (rather than later).
It’s my hope that these tips can help you work from home healthily and happily. As always, chat with your doctor if you need more help or a plan that’s customized just for you.