The Work/Life Divide

How do you make space for life when work creeps in everywhere?

The boundary between work and life for knowledge workers has been growing thinner for years; the extended pandemic lockdowns are only accelerating the process. Many of us are finding — to our relief — that we can do our work from our homes. But with this blessing comes a curse: working from home means we lose a very clear physical boundary between our work life and our home life.

Knowledge workers have been bringing work home to some extent for years. We answer emails on our phones, we use the same laptop at work and at home, we struggle to stop thinking about work even when we’ve walked away. But succumbing to the disappearing boundaries won’t help us do better work or be happier people. It will hurt both.

So how can we re-instate these boundaries? I’ll discuss three types of boundary you can implement in your own home.

The physical boundary

Even if your office is now in your home, there are ways to mark the edges of “work space” as separate from home space. The easiest way is to have a home office — a room with four walls inside of which you work, and outside of which you never bring your work. This is not always possible — you may live in a studio or a one-bedroom apartment or your office space may already be claimed — but there are other ways to create boundaries.

  • use closet space: do you have an extra closet? If not, do you have another method for storing the items in one of your closets? If you can clear out some space in a closet, you can set up a small workstation in there. Bring a chair from another room to sit at your workstation during the day, and then at the end of the day, remove the chair and close the closet door.

  • the work box: if you work in a central location of your home (e.g. the dining room table, the kitchen counter, etc), designate a box your “work box.” Make sure everything you use for working fits in that box, and at the end of your work day, pack up your work space into the box and put it away somewhere you can’t see it: in a closet, behind your couch, on top of the fridge. The important thing here is that you don’t want your workspace to be still set up after you’re done working.

The technological boundary

Technology has made work from home possible. It’s also made disconnecting from work almost impossible. But the good news it that for every technology that brings work into your home, there’s another technology to help you set it aside, even if it takes some time to set up.

  • snooze your inbox: gone are the days when you could turn off your work computer and not receive work emails. Most people now have their work email on their phones, and buzzing notifications from your boss or coworkers at 8pm makes it hard to keep your promise to stop work at 5. But most email clients have an option now to pause receiving emails for a set period of time, so take advantage of this. At the end of the workday, snooze your inbox until the next morning, so you’re not consumed with thoughts of how you’ll respond all evening.

  • turn off notifications: be brutal about pausing notifications on your phone and computer. You don’t need slack chiming at you every five minutes while you’re trying to eat dinner or watch a movie or work out. You can set notifications by time or by app, so take a few minutes to make sure work won’t be beeping at you at all hours.

The psychological boundary

Whether you have a private workspace or work in the living room, and whether you’ve banned work email from your phone or just paused evening notifications, you can still train your brain to let go of work once the day is over. Psychological boundaries require repetition and time to build the habit, so if you choose one of these to try, commit to it for thirty days before you judge its effectiveness.

  • the work agreement: if you have a good relationship with your boss and feel comfortable confiding in them about your challenges with work-life balance, then you can also work with them to set up some of these boundaries. Together, draft an agreement about when you will be available for meetings and calls, when you will be unavailable but working on projects that require deep focus, and when you will not be working.

  • the start-up and shut-down routine1: think about the actions you take at the start of every day and create a start-up routine. For example, check your work calendar, update your to-do list, check your email and flag anything that needs a response today. You can also add a pleasant ritual to this if you’d like, such as enjoying your morning coffee or playing some music.
    At the end of the work day, look at your to-do list and quickly write down a plan for finishing the remaining tasks. Do the same with your email — if it needs to be done today, send it off, but anything that can wait to tomorrow gets put on the to-do list. Then, with a plan in place, say a phrase to mark the end of the day. This can be as simple as “I am done for the day,” or as whimsical as “mischief managed.” I, personally, end my day by telling myself “you have done all you can for today.” This phrase marks the boundary — after you have said it, do not work again until you sit down for your start-up ritual.

  • the strict schedule: decide on your work hours in advance, and put them on your calendar. Set an alarm to go off 15-30 minutes before your work day ends, as a reminder to wrap everything up. Then, when your time is up, walk away from your workspace. Giving yourself permission in advance to end at a certain time helps you let go at the end of the day (but may be more effective in combination with a shut-down routine). Keeping to a set schedule may be hard at first, but the benefits will increase over time.

Some amount of remote work is likely here to stay. Even after the pandemic has passed and more people return to their offices, the culture of work will be different. This has been too large and too long a disruption not to leave its mark. So finding ways to set these boundaries will help you not just now, in the COVID-19 era, but all throughout your career.

I hope you have a chance this month to implement some of these ideas for setting work-life boundaries. I’ll be back in your inboxes on the first Monday of April with another tool, tip, or resource.

Take care of yourself!


This idea inspired by the shutdown ritual in Deep Work by Cal Newport.