Working from home can be amazing (can you say “zero commute?”). But when your home is also your office, separating your work life and your personal life can be a challenge. And without that separation, it can be easy for work to start spreading throughout your home and invading the rest of your life, making it hard to disengage and spend time on other things that really matter (like your family, friends, hobbies, and life).
I speak from experience. I’ve been working from home for almost four years, and while I wouldn’t change it for the world, finding the balance between getting work done and devoting a healthy amount of time and energy to my personal life has been tough. In the battle between work and home life, there have been many, many times when work has emerged victorious.
But I’ve put in a lot of effort to find a better work-at-home/live-at-home balance, and today I’m happy to report that while separating the two things can still be challenging, it’s certainly not impossible! (You can jump right to the tips here.)
Why Separating Your Work Life and Home Life Is So Important
First things first—before we talk about how to keep your work life from infringing on your personal life when you work from home, let’s talk about why, exactly, that’s so important.
It Helps You Avoid Burnout
“People can’t work 24/7. They need to have other things going on in their life,” says Kim Perkins, organizational psychologist and Chief Behavioral Scientist at work and culture consulting firm NOBL. According to Perkins, that always-working attitude can cause a variety of negative outcomes, including sleep issues, relationship problems, and burnout.
Taking time away from work can give your mind and body the time you need to rest, recover, and give the other areas of your life (like your sleep) the attention they deserve—and when you get back to work, you’ll have renewed energy to get things done.
It Lets You Unwind
Your home is supposed to be a place to relax—but for people who work from home, that can be a challenge.
“We have evolved to pay close attention to surroundings that we’re in—and that gives us cues about how we’re supposed to act,” says Perkins. So if everywhere and everything in your house reminds you of work, you’re going to feel like you need to work all the time and you’re not going to be able to get the rest and relaxation you need to feel your best. For example, working in bed might feel comfortable, but if you start to associate your bed with your work, it will be harder for your brain to relax and go to sleep when it’s time for lights out.
Creating a clear sense of separation between work life and home life, both physically and psychologically, can make it easier for you to shut down and relax at the end of the work day.
It’s Good for the People in Your Life
If you’re unattached or live alone, the person who’s going to be impacted most by your work-life balance is you. If you have a family, things get a little more complicated.
You need to be able to shut off and give the people closest to you the time and attention they deserve; otherwise, your work can have a seriously negative impact on your relationships. “A lot of people who work from home…are constantly checking their phone [and working],” says Perkins. “That’s going to make the partner [and family] feel a lot less listened to and a lot less valued.”
Tips to Keep Your Work From Messing With Your Personal Life
Clearly, keeping your work life from infringing on your personal life is a must if you want to feel happy, healthy, and balanced. But how, exactly, do you do that? Here are a few tips from people who’ve made it work.
1. Work Parallel Schedules
When you work from home—and do so around the clock—it can feel like you and your family are ships passing in the night. The best way to combat that? Keeping similar schedules.
“I work on my business while my husband is at work. That gives me 10 hours to do my thing,” says Anna Kat Napier, founder of Boss Girl Launch Pad. “I need to be able to stop my work when he gets home so that we can catch up with each other and spend dinnertime together.”
If you live with a partner or children, it’s important to spend some dedicated time with them rather than always splitting your attention between family and work obligations. Scheduling parallel hours (for example, cranking out work while your kids are at school or during the same hours your spouse or significant other is at their job) will allow you to get things done but still have time to connect with your family members when they get home.
“That kind of alignment shows your spouse [or family members] that you care about them,” says Perkins, and are making it a priority to have time together without distractions. Just keep in mind that working parallel schedules only works if you focus on work when it’s work time and are ready and willing to shut down when it’s over.
2. Set a Firm Stopping Point
It can be easy to lose track of time when you’re working from home. And when you finally take a breather and look at the clock, somehow hours have passed—and you’ve worked far longer than you intended. It’s so easy to tell yourself “just five more minutes” or “just one more email.” But working crazy hours can throw your body out of whack.
“Your body is used to operating on a schedule,” says Perkins. “Kids get up at the same time, they go to school at the same time, and this builds these rhythms and habits—and it’s very easy to know what you’re supposed to be doing and when you’re supposed to be doing it,” she adds. “Even as adults, we need that for a sense of consistency—because otherwise it just takes too long to figure out where we are and what we’re supposed to be doing.” Setting a firm stopping point every day—and sticking to it—can help you keep your work in check (and keep it from infringing on the things you want and need to get done after work).
Katharine Bolin, owner and digital marketing director at Sweet Reach Media, has set a firm stopping point for herself at 5 PM. If she feels tempted to work into the evening hours, she reminds herself that her personal life actually benefits her job in the long run. “I need to have a life outside of work, because that’s where inspiration comes from, and that’s what will ultimately keep me doing good work in my work life.”
3. Have a Trigger to End the Work Day (and Start Personal Time)
Triggers (or cues) can be a powerful way to form new habits. Having a routine that you do every day when you finish work will send a signal to your body and brain that work is officially over—and it’s time to move on and enjoy your personal time.
“At the end of the day, I make a to-do list for tomorrow before shutting down my computer and walking downstairs,” says Megan Winkler, the owner of Limelight Visibility Marketing. “For me, it’s the virtual equivalent to the separation that a commute home gives.”
What you do as a routine to trigger the end of work time and start of personal time is up to you. My end-of-day routine is to take my dog for a walk around our neighborhood, but you can do a five-minute meditation, clean up your office, or, like Winkler, organize your tasks into a to-do list for the following day.
What you do is less important than doing it every day. The routine “establishes a habit that ‘after I do this, I’m going to relax.’ And so it creates some separation between your work self and your personal self,” says Perkins. “And you need this in order to, again, fully relax [and] get your mind on other things.”
4. Shut the Office Door
Ever heard the saying “out of sight, out of mind?” Well, that also applies to your work space.
“[One] of the tricks I use to separate my personal from professional life while I work from home is to shut my office door during weekends,” says Angela Zade, digital marketing manager for travel software company Trondent Development Corp. It’s her way of telling herself: “The Office Is Closed!”
If you use a dedicated room as your home office, step away at the end of the day and leave all your work gear, like your laptop and work phone, behind. In other words, literally and figuratively shut the door on work so that you can pursue personal projects, family time, or just good, old-fashioned relaxing without feeling the pull of the office.
If you don’t have an enclosed workspace, no worries! You can create some physical separation with a screen or a well-placed bookshelf. And if that’s not an option either, just cleaning up your ongoing work can help you avoid the pull of your desk. According to Perkins, many people leave their work out in plain sight, making it harder to disconnect. Clearing off your desk and putting your work out of view (for example, putting your laptop and any loose papers in a desk drawer) can help you create a visual and psychological sense of separation—even if you can’t physically close off your workspace from the rest of your home.
5. Schedule Screen-Free Time
One of my biggest challenges in creating separation between my work and home life is the constant screen time. If I’m on (or even near!) my laptop, tablet, or phone, I have to fight the urge to check my email—even if I’m supposed to be off duty and enjoying down time.
This bad habit can be particularly annoying for my husband; no one wants to have a one-sided conversation with their partner while they mindlessly scroll through their Gmail app.
That’s why we’ve made screen-free time a non-negotiable in my house. Having a set time when phones, laptops, tablets, and TV screens are a no-go allows me to fully disconnect from my work and digital life—and fully engage with my real life. When my husband gets home from the office, we both make sure to put our phones away and enjoy some screen-free time to catch up on each other’s days. We also try to schedule at least a few “screen-free Saturdays” a month and I even tried the distraction-free iPhone to stem the temptation to spend too much time staring at a screen.
When you work from home, it’s so easy to be tuned into work 24/7. But remember, your home is your home first—and your office second. And if you want to have the work-life balance you crave (and deserve!), you need to treat it that way.