When I graduated from UX Academy in early 2017, I was a bright-eyed young designer looking for work in the tech industry. After a few months of interviewing for jobs, I discovered a trend: none of these tech companies were comfortable with remote work options. The expectation of the UX Designer seemed to be someone who sits right next to stakeholders and developers for close collaboration.
At first, I was dismayed at that discovery; by that time I had already been working remotely for 2 years. Remote working wasn’t just a temporary deviation from the “norm” for me, but rather a lifestyle by choice. After finishing all of my UX Academy capstone projects remotely, I started to believe that UX Design isn’t something that has to be done in a fixed office. I knew I could carry out every part of the design process remotely, from user research to wireframing to usability testing.
For the next two years, I embarked on a (slightly scary) mission to make a career out of UX design—remotely. I took some big personal risks, and turned down a number of on-site UX job offers. And much to my surprise, I was able to ship all of my freelance UX projects remotely for 2 years and counting.
I’ve continued to enjoy the benefits of remote working, in particular the ability to maintain focus for extended hours and produce deep work. Being able to engage in hours of deep thinking and design ideation, without interruption, is almost unheard of in an office environment, and an underrated benefit of remote work to the design process.
But at the same time, the remot working can be quite solitary, and it does come with some health risks. I’ve learned the hard way that when working remotely, we need to take care of ourselves; nobody else is going to do that for us. So in this post, I want to share what I’ve learned over the past few years, in some top tips for keeping your mind and body healthy while building a remote career.
1. Create an ergonomic workstation
Posture health goes far beyond “sitting up straight”, according to Harvard Health. Correct posture helps you maintain good flexibility and balanced muscles, which in turn prevents injuries when you engage in sports and other physical activity.
I have met so many remote developers who have bad posture. Some of them suffer from chronic back pain, and in the worst-case scenario, they have had to go through surgery to be able to perform functional movement again.
Whether you work from home or a coworking space, make sure your workstation is set up ergonomically for a natural, relaxed position. Pick a chair that supports your natural spinal curves and keeps your feet flat on the floor.
As digital designers, we all use the mouse all day long. Make sure you invest in an ergonomic mouse to avoid sore wrists. And for maximum neck comfort, your eyes should be positioned to the top quarter of your monitor. Check out these best practices advised by the Mayo Clinic.
2. Protect your eyes from CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome)
When your whole career is about creating pixel-perfect screen designs, the eye-strain from staring intensely at your computer screen is real. CVS (computer vision syndrome) affects 65% of American adults.
Similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, it’s caused by repetitive eye movement following the same path over and over. Symptoms include eye strain, dry eyes, blurred vision, red or pink eyes, burning, light sensitivity, headaches, and even neck or back pain, according to All About Vision.
As we look at the computer screen, our eyes need to focus and refocus all the time. This puts a lot of strain on our eye muscles. The glare and flickering of digital screens don’t help either. I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon at all, until I noticed my eyesight began to decline rapidly after I started staring at my laptop screen for hours on end. The strain was made worse by the blue light emitted from the screen, which makes our eyes work extra hard to focus.
The method that helped me was the 20-20-20 rule, designed by Californian optometrist Jeffrey Anshel. The idea is to take a 20-second break from the screen every 20 minutes and focus the eyes on an object 20 feet away. This helps relax the eye muscles. Also, try to dim your screen so that it’s not much brighter than the rest of your room. I’ve also turned on the “Night Shift” on my Mac so that the screen color temperature becomes warmer (less blue light) at night.
3. Turn off notifications when needed
When you work remotely, the in-person interaction between coworkers is usually replaced by Slack messages and emails. Stakeholder feedback on your design work is delivered in a constant stream of InVision comments. Developers will never stop asking questions about your design prototype over Zeplin, Jira, Slack and wherever else they can find you.
According to research, the average person gets 65-80 smartphone notifications a day. Add those to countless desktop notifications, and you have the recipe for a distracted and stressed remote worker. At times, non-stop notifications can get overwhelming. The last time I worked closely with an Agile team on a beta release of a complex web app, I could feel my sanity slipping away in the face of a daily onslaught of notifications, both in and out of work hours.
What I struggle with most is that notifications all scream for attention at the same time. So it could feel like the whole world urgently demands your attention all at once. The way I’ve dealt with this is to schedule a few times a day to check them all, and to snooze notifications the rest of the time. For example, I often schedule a slot at 11am and 4pm to batch-process all of my comments, messages, and emails, and in between those times I turn off app notifications completely.
If you’re not yet ready to turn off notifications altogether, try using “Do not disturb” mode when you are doing deep work, and after your workday is finished. I know the urge to check Slack right before bed all too well, and suffered greatly from it myself. Put your phone away in another room about an hour before bedtime, so that you can properly wind down and switch your mind off from work.
4. Take frequent breaks away from your desk
The romantic idea of the UX Designer being out in the field—doing guerilla user testing with a backpack full of sticky notes—is a total myth. Like other tech workers, UX designers are tethered to their desks most of the time. Plus, when you work remotely with no in-person meetings or water-cooler chit-chat to lure you away from your desk, you can end up in a sedentary routine by default.
The medical community increasingly call this humanity’s “sitting disease”: 70% of adults spend most of their waking time sitting. According to research on the perils of inactivity, the sedentary lifestyle leads to reduced muscle strength, weakened immune systems, poorer blood circulation, and even hormonal imbalance. Studies have even found links between extended sitting and heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.
But don’t be discouraged by the facts and figures! If you have a sedentary digital life, it’s not too late to make a change. After all, taking a break doesn’t require much effort. As well as inwardly committing to taking your health seriously, I recommend choosing a small action that you can do repeatedly. Before you know it, it will have become a new, healthy habit.
Personally, I have benefited from using wearables to monitor my health. I started a blog called Digiswitch to discuss the “quantified self” and wearable tech. In the absence of workplace interventions, wearable tech is well-suited to remote workers. My Fitbit alerts me to take 250 steps every hour. It also tracks my health in the background as I go about the day. So at the end of the day, I have a wealth of data about my active minutes, calories burned, sleep and lots more.
5. Enforce a consistent sleep schedule
Speaking of sleep, it’s one of the toughest hurdles I’ve yet to overcome with the flexible day schedule. Imagine the freedom of not having to set your alarm clock at the same time every morning—suddenly I found myself snoozing 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes… and before I knew it, I was getting up at midday.
It requires a lot of self-control to stick to a healthy work routine while working remotely. If you sleep past your prime productivity hour, it’s way harder to do any of the brain-busting work that the day might demand. Sleep research has shown that our bodies go through rhythmic cycles of 90 to 120 minutes (“ultradian rhythms”), and our productivity rises and falls within these cycles.
In this guide about how to find your most productive hour of the day, it’s important to eliminate, or at least control, factors that could disrupt your natural energy level. Caffeine intake is one, and a consistent sleep schedule is another. Once you can go to bed and wake up at a consistent time, you can start noting your alertness, motivation and focus level during your waking hours.
Needless to say, sleep consistency takes commitment. Ensuring your fall asleep at the same time each day might mean that you have to say no to late-night hangouts, and cut out alcohol on school nights. You can use this calculator to find out what time you should go to bed with your desired wake up time. And waking up without snoozing your alarm clock is another tricky endeavor. Personally, the anti-snooze method that worked for me—after months of experimenting—was to use the silent alarm function on my Fitbit. It wakes me up with a gentle buzz on my wrist, meaning I don’t start my day irritated by a loud alarm.
6. Get out of your home office and socialize
Finally, remember to care for your mental health when you spend most days working alone in front of a screen. Aristotle famously said that people are by nature social animals: we have a need for belonging. As remote workers, if we don’t ensure we have adequate social interaction, we might start to doubt whether we belong anywhere.
This certainly happened to me when I was traveling and working remotely. I was moving from one city to the next every few months, spending just enough time to get my bearings in the new environment, but not long enough to make meaningful connections. On top of that, I didn’t get much facetime with my coworkers due to the time difference. For a long time, I felt prolonged anxiety, sense of loss, confusion, and loneliness.
Before long, I realized that social interaction is not a given when you work remotely. For my own benefit, it’s something I had to proactively seek out. On the down-side, it always requires effort to get out of my “solitary work” mode. But on the up-side, I can choose when and where to show up, and who to see. Compared to a traditional office set-up, where you usually don’t get much say in the matter, I’ve come to appreciate how deliberate I can be in my social interactions as a remote worker.
If you are working remotely or contemplating it, make a plan for social time. Go to a co-working space near you to create connections with fellow co-workers. Attend meetups and interest groups. Volunteer your free time at a local charity or institution. As long as you are showing up with good intentions, something good will come your way.
If you are considering taking the plunge, remote UX Design is a viable career path. You will have some self-doubt in the beginning, but that needn’t stop you from doing great work, so long as you commit to this way of working.
Once you’ve embarked on the path to working remotely as a UX Designer, it is critical that you take extra care of yourself. With discipline and commitment to self-care, burnout is completely avoidable.
I hope these tips help you build your own happy and healthy remote UX design career!
Lucia Ziyuan is a freelance UX/UI Designer with a penchant for the written word. Lucia now lives in sunny Lisbon after 3 years of traveling. Her portfolio can be found at BeyondPixels.Design.
Illustrations: Annie Devine