More people than ever now work from home for part or all of the week. Such flexibility can seem a good idea, but many people find it difficult to manage their time. Working from home in isolation can also prevent people from engaging in the daily interpersonal relationships that working life can offer – and which can help creativity and improve our mental wellbeing.
Time is our most precious commodity and a currency to spend. As my own research on lateness has highlighted, time management involves managing complex relationships and conflicts within ourselves – as well as with others.
In an ordinary workplace, we are helped in our time management by the fact that our access to many temptations is limited. We don’t have to constantly monitor ourselves as our colleagues or bosses are likely to be doing so. While we might bemoan our lack of choice about what we do and when – such as attending a two-hour meeting – we can also be relieved of the need to make choices about what to do next.
But when working from home, temptations abound which can eat up our time. Food is in the fridge or can be bought in a quick trip to the shops. Excitement of all kinds can be easily accessed through social media, websites or games which will arouse, enrage, shock, entertain, amuse or enthral us. For some, the temptations to use their time “badly”, particularly online, can be very seductive. At any moment there is a delicate balance of power within: between our creative, constructive side and the side which seeks easier gratification and mindlessness.
There is a delicate balance of power within: between our creative, constructive side and the side which seeks easier gratification and mindlessness.
Real work is often scary, and the responsibility can frighten us. Difficult tasks remain vague if we don’t actually start them. Procrastination is not a good way to manage anxiety, but it is a very common option. Putting things off keeps the anxiety going of course, but also keeps the possibility alive that the task will get done well – at some point in the future.
At work, the pressures of time management mostly come from other people. While we can resent the bossiness or oversight of others, we still get things done and being closely managed in this way can actually spur us to do so. At home, we are both the “boss” and the “worker”, so the conflict, now internal, can be much harder to manage.
If we are lucky we have a kindly and parental internal voice, guiding us towards helpful choices while still allowing us time to have fun. However, many of us have a nagging internal voice, berating us for not doing things as we should, or ramping up our anxiety about our own abilities to complete the task at hand. For some people, the boss in their head can be far more critical and unfriendly than the one at their place of work. This is likely to lead them to employ destructive ways to evade or defend themselves: they are more likely to duck and dive and give in to temptation.
No substitute for the real thing
At work we engage with others in ways which are straightforwardly helpful – they are there to bounce ideas off when when we’re getting unduly caught up in a narrow way of thinking or to express appreciation of our work. But even when we are having conflicts or difficult relationships with others they may be helping us in another way. Not only can we define and refine our own ideas through these arguments, but if these conflicts don’t just happen inside our own heads, they trouble us less internally.
We can do some of this virtually when working from home, but engaging with others by email, on messaging services or social media is very different from doing so in person. It is less likely that virtual interactions with our co-workers will give us that lively sense of interaction which truly makes these processes successful. Many people actually need the opportunity to come up against other people in person to feel successful in their working and creative lives and to enhance their emotional well-being – in ways beyond their need for friendship or to avoid loneliness.
So if you find working from home challenging, don’t worry, many people do and it is not because you are in some way especially flawed. Take seriously the possibility that you need to recreate something more like a workplace in your own home by setting aside an area away from your relaxation space and setting yourself designated, but limited, working hours. Think about what you need to do to re-establish some of the other external constraints of work by involving others in your deadlines, arranging progress meetings and, most importantly, limiting your access to distractions by switching off internet access for periods during the day.
Take seriously the need to have proper interpersonal relationships with colleagues as well as friends, other than online. We are not designed to manage our emotional lives in isolation and need others to relate with – in ways over and above those of friendship and intimacy.
Sue Kegerreis is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex. This article originally appeared on The Conversation, and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.