Career AdviceHow to Not Be at Work All the Time When You Live at Work 

Mali Fischer-Levine
writes on February 26, 2021

At this point, many of us have some experience working while at home, either pandemic-induced or by choice for some time prior. Whether you are a student, developer, designer, parent, artist, currently looking for work, or something else entirely, 2020 has brought us a shared experience in the form of our world shrinking to fit work, life, and everything in between within the four walls of our living arrangements. 

It’s important to mention right off the bat that working from home provides a number of notable benefits. It’s also a huge privilege, during a global pandemic, to be able to do your work from the safety of your home. That said, it’s not always easy, especially given the circumstances of the past year. When your office is your home and you’re always at home doesn’t that mean you’re also always at the office? Well, yes. Luckily, with a little imagination and some minor changes, we can at least help ensure our brains leave the workplace, even if our bodies remain on the premises. 

If you are anything like me then you might be feeling tired after the past year and looking to implement some new tools that will help you achieve this mythical work-life balance everyone is talking about. Well, you came to the right place! I read articles, watched some videos, talked to other folx, and thought a fair amount while on walks to create this modest list of approachable, simple, tools you can apply when you feel those boundaries blurring and want to stop them before they become so foggy that you have to update your prescription. Quick, before it’s too late! 

I want to clarify, before we dive in, that I am no expert. I haven’t figured this out yet. That’s why I’m writing this blog post and why all these ideas are so good 😉 because I want to use them for myself.  My hope is we can learn together. Personally, I’m going to pick three of these things and implement them for at least a month – I hope you’ll join me!

The boundaries you can see

This one is pretty self-explanatory: create physical differentiators between your work and your life. In an ideal world, this would look like a dedicated office space with a door you can open and shut. Obviously, this is not realistic for everyone, so I’m not going to recommend going out and getting yourself an office as step #1. 

Maybe it looks like this: 

  • Having certain places in your house that you don’t work in. Keep them free of anything that will remind you of your job.
  • Having a cool blazer (or hat, pin, scrunchie, etc.)  that you wear when you are at work and then promptly taking it off when you are done to signify that a change has occurred. 
  • Painting half of a table white and the other half blue. The white side is for work, the blue side is for all the other stuff. 
  • Buying a laptop stand that you use when working on the couch. When you’re done for the day, the stand goes in the closet and you don’t look at it again until tomorrow, when a new workday starts. 

Basically, do whatever you can to create some physical differentiation between “work” space and “life” space. Then, keep doing it over and over again to train your brain to “leave” work when that physical change occurs. 

The boundaries you can’t see

If you use the same laptop for work and personal life, create separate accounts/profiles for your two selves. Don’t even log into your work email on your personal account. 

Update your Slack profile to include your working hours. When taking a lunch break, or when done for the day, update your status to reflect that. Better yet, snooze your notifications! This is, arguably, especially important if you are influential over other people (for example, a manager or people-leader) because it sets a standard and gives others permission to do the same, which results in a healthier team. 

Create an end of day ritual to mark the transition from one part of your day to the next. Maybe this is saying out loud to yourself “I have done all I can, it’s time to rest”. Maybe this is a 3 minute meditation. Maybe it’s writing the high notes of the day in a journal. Maybe this is eating a piece of chocolate and then sighing loudly and touching your toes. Maybe it’s going for a jog, cooking dinner, or helping your kid with homework. Whatever it is, make it consistent and enjoyable and don’t work again after you have done it!

Write down a set of rules for yourself. They can be aspirational, pick at least two of them to try out. Here are some examples: 

  • I will work no more than 8 hours per day.
  • I will step away from my computer for 5 minutes every hour.
  • I will do 10 jumping jacks for every email that I send today.
  • Before saying “yes” to the next ask, I will request 24 hours to think about it. 
  • I will only check my email 2x per day. 
  • I will have one day per week with no meetings

Write them down. Tape to the wall near where you work. Look up at it regularly. 

Tell others all about it

Verbalize the new rules you have set for yourself – telling someone else will help hold you accountable. This could look like “I am going to stop working at 3PM today. I would love a status update after your meeting but, if you message me, I won’t respond until tomorrow morning” OR “I would love to be a part of this project, but I’ve made a commitment to myself to take an hour-long lunch break every day which conflicts with the current meeting time. Could we change that?” OR “I’m really excited because I’ve decided I’m going to stop working on weekends!”

If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist

Hide work from your weekend self. This could be a closed door, but it could also be buying a plastic tote and putting your work laptop, notepad, filing folder, work phone etc. into this tote. Put the lid on it, seal it up and tuck it into the corner or a closet. 

Manage those tasks

Lingering  tasks that have slipped between the cracks are literally what keeps me up at night. Unfortunately, we can’t stop the tasks from existing, but we can make sure they are captured safely. There are a ton of task management apps out there – Tick Tick, Asana, Todoist, Google Tasks, Trello..the list goes on, pick one and use it! Keep your list open at all times. When someone asks you to do something, add it to the list. Right away. If it’s stored in the place with all the other tasks then you can rely on future you to take care of it and there will be no need for current you (who is off work) to sit up in the middle of the night remembering the commitment you made (and missed) last Tuesday. 

Show your calendar whose boss (spoiler alert: it’s your calendar)

This is similar to the previous point, in the sense that you are relying on your future self to get things done so you can rest easy knowing that they will take care of it when the time comes. Your calendar is a powerful tool and there are endless ways for how to best use it. Some people prefer to block every.single.thing off on their calendar and live by that timeline. This way, they know they will start at 9AM and end at 5PM and, as long as they follow the rules of the calendar, they will have gotten everything done that they set out to do in-between. 

For others, this is a pipe dream because there are always things that come up spontaneously and we will have to reshuffle in order to accommodate. Instead of trying to allocate every hour of my calendar, I use it to guard time for projects and tasks that I know will need to be done by a certain point, or on a recurring basis. You should also block off breaks! Lunch! Coffee! A walk! Put it on the calendar and then do what that calendar tells you. It is the boss, after all. 

Slow & steady wins

This is going to sound pretty wild, but bear with me. After you start a task, just keep doing it and then finish it completely before you start another task. I know, I know – it seems way faster to do 3 tasks at once and we should focus on learning how to successfully do 3 tasks in the time it takes us to do 1! Well, we were wrong and, let me tell you, it feels great and allows me to leave the work day feeling more “finalized.”

Leverage technology

There are a ton of apps out there to increase productivity and optimize your workflow. These are great and certainly have a place in the scheme of work/life balance but what I really want to share are the ones that force you to do less

  • Time Out allows you to set break alarms on your work laptop. 
  • Simply Yoga is essentially the same concept but with yoga. 
  • Forest rewards you for not looking at your phone by planting cute trees. 
  • Strides helps you establish healthy habits (like taking a lunch break!). 
  • Insight Timer offers guided meditations on a timer – to encourage breaks and mindfulness.  

Leave technology

The awesome thing about technology is that it has allowed us to work from anywhere, at any time. The downside is that it means any time and anywhere has the potential to be work. Remove technology from the picture, and often you are left with a more simple set of options. If you really need to check out, take some dedicated time away from your tech – even those not directly connected to work. Aim for a certain amount of time each day completely removed from your devices. 

Clean up

This goes for all your workspaces – digital and physical. A little tidying goes a long way towards a calm work environment. A calm work environment goes a long way towards having a weekend in which you don’t think about work even once. Take 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes out of your day every day to clean one thing. Maybe it’s your desk, maybe it’s your email inbox. 

In conclusion

Work is important and adds value to our lives. It pays the bills; it provides support and stability; it makes you feel fulfilled. It can allow you to leave a positive impact in the world and connect deeply with others. But work is just one facet of the diamond that is your life and we need to give the rest of our time the same level of attention and commitment to excellence! Don’t forget to have compassion for yourself and be honest about what you need in order to do that, both with yourself and others. 

Artwork by the author

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