“There’s no place like home.”— Dorothy Gail
There used to be “no place like home.” Nowadays, this isn’t the case. Home used to be our safe haven — the place we went to get away from work. Home offered privacy; only a select few held the honor of being invited into our sacred space. Home was where we didn’t have to wear pants.
It’s debatable how long the current pandemic will last, but what isn’t up for debate is that it has fundamentally altered how many of us do our jobs. Remote work has become the norm, and many people plan to stay remote after we’re allowed within 6ft of each other again.
This is a great setup for introverts: We don’t have to brave the crowds, wear pants (I really hate wearing pants), commute 45 minutes each way, and we can poop in our own bathroom? It’s the dream.
But this comes at a cost. Our private lives have been invaded. Bosses, clients, and strangers of all kinds are suddenly taking up virtual residence in our sanctum sanctorum. Home is no longer where we go to unwind. We have to be “on” at home — the one place we could always be “off.” We’re always on camera. We have to be productive at home. We have to study at home. We have to go to school at home. We have to go to work at home.
Home isn’t home anymore.
I’ve worked from home providing telehealth services as a therapist for most of this year. I’ve felt the strain from blurred lines between work and home, as have many of my clients. I knew there had to be a better way to live the remote work life, I just needed to tap into some principles of human behavior.
Here are some strategies that have helped my clients, and me, work from home and thrive doing it.
Foundational Concepts for Setting Boundaries
According to Oxford, a boundary is “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.” If you want to stay sane working from home, setting the right boundaries is critical.
Setting a boundary means designating where things happen and, more importantly, where things don’t happen.
Do you eat on the toilet? Do you twerk at the library? Hopefully not. We designate where certain behaviors take place. This maintains order and sanity. When we blur these lines, everything gets wonky.
When psychologists teach sleep hygiene, we tell people not to watch television, read, or lounge in their bed. Why? Because your bed should be for sleep and sex — nothing else. Otherwise, your brain becomes deconditioned and no longer associates bed with sleep. This creates bad sleep habits and leads to insomnia. This same deconditioning can happen when we work from home without setting boundaries.
Do you know why some people prefer to study or write papers at a library? It isn’t because libraries make you more productive — you could easily recreate a quiet environment somewhere else and have a friend randomly walk by and shush you. It’s because we mentally associate being in the library with being productive.
Or take going to the dentist — many people get anxious when they go, even before anything painful happens. Why? Because they mentally associate being at the dentist with experiencing pain.
This mental association is a principle from classical conditioning, and we can use it to our advantage.
Creating Mental Boundaries for Productivity and Sanity
“A place for everything, everything in its place.”— Benjamin Franklin
Think back to when you used to go into the office. What were the differences between being at work versus home? We can preserve some of these differences and translate them to the work-from-home environment.
Hold Office Hours
A schedule sets the boundaries of when you’re at work and when you’re not.
It sounds weird to keep office hours at home, but the alternative means floating through the day in a haze. What time do you start work? What time is your lunch break, and how long does it last? When are you off work?
Talk to most productivity experts, and they’ll tell you to set SMART goals — ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-sensitive. Keeping office hours, aka, a set schedule, checks off three of the five components of productivity success: specific, measurable, and time-sensitive. If you don’t set a schedule, there’s no metric for accountability or a way to gauge when you’re done for the day.
Hang a sign if you need to remind yourself, or the people you live with, when you’re scheduled to be in work mode and when you’ll be free to kick back and relax.
I even keep the old routine of telling my partner, “Alright, I’m going to work. Love you. Bye.” Then I walk from the bedroom to my workspace. Saying “bye,” signals to my mind that I’m leaving home to go somewhere — in this case, work.
Design Mental Workspaces
If you can afford to dedicate a room as a home office or buy a separate work computer, great, do it. If not, no worries, you just have to be more inventive by finding ways to mentally separate work from leisure space.
When I teach parents how to discipline their kids using a timeout, there’s a major drawback — how do you discipline them in public when you don’t have a chair or room to put them in for timeout? One parent came up with a great solution. She kept a “timeout towel” in her purse. If she was in the middle of the cereal aisle and her son acted up, she would pull out the towel, place it on the ground, and that’s where she’d have him do timeout. Space was no longer a limitation because she had a symbolic representation of timeout with her at all times.
So can you.
Remember, the concept is to change your mental associations, so you can be productive and maintain your sanity working from home. Minor changes can make a major difference:
- Have different pairs of glasses. I currently have two pairs — a metal black-framed pair I only wear for work, and a fun plastic purple pair for everything else. It’s subtle, but wearing my black ones primes my mind to kick into work mode, while the purple ones signal I can relax and be “off.”
- Have designated work and leisure clothes. Remember how I hate real pants? I have designated “work pajamas” that I only wear during office hours. If getting all dolled up to go to your workspace is too much effort, I highly recommend work pajamas — just remember to wear an appropriate top if you’ll be on camera. And remember to change out of your work pajamas at the end of the workday.
- Make a productivity playlist. I have custom playlists for different activities: workouts, meditation, bedtime, writing, and I even create playlists for books I read. Whenever a song from a playlist comes on, it puts me in a specific mindset. If I listen to my bedtime playlist at noon, I get tired. If a song from my workout playlist comes on while I’m driving, I get pumped up and slam the gas peddle. Set up a work playlist and keep it on in the background, just be sure you only listen to it for work — otherwise, you’ll lose the mental association between the songs and being productive.
- Develop a work ritual. Most athletes have superstitions and rituals they go through to get their heads in the game. Maybe you light a vanilla mahogany candle during work hours. Maybe you only brew Darjeeling black tea during the workday then switch to jasmine green tea when it’s time to relax. Maybe you kept a small blanket at your old office for when you got cold — bring it to your home office. It’s still got the psychological residue of work on it; wrap yourself in it and get to work. I eat dates with my morning coffee while I write; it’s a routine I’ve fallen into that works for me.
Most of these tips focus on creating mental workspaces, but it’s equally important to create mental leisure spaces. Be sure to designate where you don’t work — like your bed, couch, or some other places you want to keep sacred for relaxation.
Remember, this is about creating a divide so you can focus when you need to be productive and relax the rest of the time. If you try to do both — like doing paperwork on the couch during family movie night, all you’ll end up doing is half-assing work and relaxation. Get your work done in your workspace, then go enjoy family time.
One of the biggest issues with working from home is the constant guilt we feel if we’re not productive. We can’t relax if we don’t feel like we’ve “earned” it. So we coast through the workday in a malaise then spend the evening guilt-ridden for not having done more during the day.
The simplest solution to maintain our productivity and preserve our sanity is to create mental boundaries — dividing lines — so we know when we’re at work and when we can call it a day and relax.
Setting these boundaries is simpler than it seems. A few minor tweaks can help us optimize our workspaces so we can get shit done and get on with our lives.
Give it a try and let me know what works for you. I’m always down to learn about new ways people find success in their lives.