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Your brain on remote work: Mental tips for working from home

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We don’t need to tell you this, but working from home can be stressful. It doesn’t have to be, though.

The science on this is still kind of new, but some recent studies offer some clues as to how we can make this unnatural situation more tolerable and maybe even enjoyable.

Dr. John Medina of Seattle is an expert on the brain, and author of the popular Brain Rules books. He knows how the brain evolved long ago, and how the brain works today, and what kinds of things throw it out of whack.

One thing that throws it out of whack, is working from home for months on end.


At first, he says our brains kind of liked it. It’s like hiding in a cave, which offers us protection; in this case, protection from noisy coworkers who interrupt our workflow or drag us into surprise meetings.

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But that good feeling doesn’t last.

“What happens after awhile is that the cave begins to close in,” he says.

Medina says he’s developed three personal habits for himself, based on brain science, and these three habits make working from home more tolerable.


“I take a break every 90 minutes," he said, "And it’s 15 minutes long. I live near Carkeek Park, and so, in that 15 minutes, I have the luxury of being able to go out and walk around it.”

Medina says back when our brains were forming, we were hunter-gatherers. We had to leave our caves every once in a while and enter the forest to gather food.

Medina says modern humans need to spend time in nature, too. In England, researchers studying this call such activity "green exercise." In Japan, Medina says, "they have a delightful name for it: They call it ‘forest bathing.’”

You can get some of the benefits by even just looking at a picture of a plant. The effect begins in mere milliseconds, Medina says. But to really lock it in, it’s helpful to walk around outside for at least 10 minutes.


Forest bathing can help you keep up on the second of Dr. Medina’s healthy habits: “I walk 1.8 miles per day,” he says.

Medina has a treadmill right there in his home office. Research shows exercise just makes the brain work better, “because that changes executive function and what not, and so I am religiously on that.”


There’s one more habit Medina uses, to make his brain happier while he’s working from home.

“I make sure that I stagger my Zoom meetings. So I have a Zoom meeting, and then I’ll make a phone call," he says. "This is why you’re on a phone, by the way, because I just had a Zoom meeting, before we got on.”

Medina says there’s a good scientific reason to limit your exposure to Zoom: “The brain hates it. Most people find Zoom conversations … exhausting.”

He says there are some fascinating studies that show why.

caption: Dr. John Medina
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Dr. John Medina
Courtesy of Dr. John Medina

Your brain on Zoom

One reason is that there’s very little body language in Zoom, so it’s hard to know when people are gonna talk and people interrupt each other all the time.

Then there’s the way people look on Zoom – all up close and personal. Zoom creates the illusion that we’re in a very intense one-on-one conversation. The other person appears to be staring at us, as we stare back at them.

Medina said back when human brains were still evolving, that kind of intimacy carried the promise of sex… or combat.

“The brain looks at that and says, no, we’re not going to have sex together and we’re probably not going to engage in physical combat, therefore I must edit out that natural tendency and still maintain the conversation,” he says.

It’s not that we’re consciously thinking these things, so no need to call Human Resources. It’s just that our brains know there’s something off about Zoom calls, and it’s exhausting to pretend that they’re normal conversations.

Beyond these habits, there’s something else that makes working from home tolerable, but Medina almost seems to feel guilty mentioning it.

“I am absolutely in love with what I do," Medina says, "I mean, I can’t believe I get paid to do this. So it’s not difficult at all for me - I’m not repelled when I sit down at the computer.”

A lot of people can’t work from home, and not everybody can love their job.

But Medina says everybody would benefit from taking short walks whenever possible, in a place where they can see a little bit of nature.

Even if it’s just walking around the block.

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