How can I keep a good work-life balance when working from home?

When Covid slammed into our society last year, many of us found ourselves suddenly working someplace new—not just working remotely, but specifically working from home. A lot of the conversations around this could be pretty frustrating to hear: the reduction to “this is so much easier & I’m far more productive!” vs. “this is isolating and impossible to get anything done!” without allowing for circumstance. Working from home has a lot of potential upsides, yet comes with unique challenges: screaming kids and barking dogs in the middle of a Zoom call; getting distracted from work by the never-ending laundry (and then getting distracted from the laundry by never-ending work); the endless schlick!-ta-ta-ta of Slack notifications at all hours; that nagging feeling that, whatever you’re doing, you should be doing something else—all taken together, it’s easy to have the days blend together into a stressful, unrewarding mush.

Fortunately, there’s some techniques you can use to mitigate WFH’s downsides, so you can get back to finishing your work & living your life, and to enjoying the advantages of your situation. Today, let’s enable better boundaries between work and home by separating your work and not-work environments.

We humans are all creatures of habit, driven by cues in our environment. Did you have a favorite class as a kid? You’d step into the classroom and time would just slip away, before the class even started. Or perhaps you’ve had the experience of settling into the same reading nook for months or years on end and just falling into your book. What’s going on here is more than one good day in class, or a couple of good pages of a story: your mind learns to associate place with action over time, and so entering that place sets you up for the associated action. It’s why you can sit down in your car and find that you’ve turned the keys without having thought about it. With this self-knowledge, we can set ourselves up for a better life with a few easy steps.

First, set aside a space for work—and only for work. (It’s probably not your TV-facing couch.) The classic example is having a whole room as an office, but not only is that out of reach for many of us, it’s often misleading: a private office gets used for work, sure…and maybe some gaming, and cross-country family Zoom calls, a pet’s bedroom, a spare bedroom, kids' playtime spillover, and so on. Offices are often full of distractions. The key here isn’t about your floorplan; it’s about how your brain interacts with your environment. If you’re in a small space or a studio, carve out a corner of a table that’s For Work Only. If you do have a whole room to dedicate to work, fantastic; just beware slipping into multiple uses, and if that’s unavoidable for you, consider if just part of the room can be truly only for work.

Then, grab a seat (or a stand) at your work spot, and observe. What’s in your field of vision? What do those things make you think of, or want to do? Is there mess? kids toys? the family calendar? your guitar? Yeah, move all that %$&@! The goal is to not have stuff in your environment that’ll cue you to do something other than the work you want to do—and vice-versa when you get to the fun stuff. This might mean turning your Space For Work towards a wall, which is fine (and pretty typical anyway). In-view Stuff that truly doesn’t cue you towards action and distraction, like flowers and decor, is usually fine, but if you’re not sure, find it a new home.

Okay, you’re ready! When you’re ready to work, plunk down in your new spot and get to it. When you’re not working, don’t use that work spot. Over time, you’ll find that you habituate to that particular environment telling your mind and body that it’s time for work. Getting started will be easier, and getting distracted less frequent. Likewise, you’ll find work-related thoughts and compulsions are less invasive in your non-work life: no more urges to check your work email when you catch sight of your laptop while cooking dinner.

And just like that, you’ve added better boundaries to your life. If you found this helpful & want more, add your email to my list below!

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