When you work from home, ending your workday doesn't include physically leaving the office — so the lines between your personal life and professional life are easily blurred. There is no smooth shifting of gears between work, family, and personal time, and sometimes it all feels like it’s happening at once.
Here's how to give structure to your workday and designate a difference between professional and personal time when your house is your workplace.
1. Create an Office — and a Dress Code
Working at home successfully is a mental game, says Marianne Griebler, a marketing communications consultant from Chicago. "You still need to 'get dressed' (although suits are probably optional), go to ‘work’ (ideally in a quiet location; the kitchen counter doesn’t cut it) and respect the hours that you set," she says. And ignore that doorbell. You’re at work; you’re not home.
Finding the best work space and office hours in the home requires a bit of trial and error, though. (In six years, I have worked in the living room, dining room, kitchen, guest bedroom, and laundry room.)
When you start telecommuting, it's like a new relationship: You have to get to know your work rhythms, figure out how your good and bad habits may interfere with or enhance your productivity, and determine which part of the house has the best cell phone reception and network connectivity. Home is no longer just home, and you must treat it that way.
2. Set Serious Boundaries
Telecommuting means those who share the same roof — your family, pets, or housemates — are part of your workday, whether you're racing toward a deadline or enjoying a lull between projects. You must draw a hard line about the fact that you're working, and make sure family members know you aren't to be disturbed. Text messages from family members and friends don’t help, so silence your phone or put it in do-not-disturb mode.
If you have a separate home office space, a closed door isn't always an effective barrier, so Griebler gave her family a visual aid: a red light/green light system. "You can get fancy, but I just used sheets of construction paper taped to the door. Green meant I was working, but could be disturbed. Red meant I was under deadline or on a call."
3. Stick to the Schedule
Working from home without any chance of the boss walking by to check in means the onus of accountability falls on you. Without the physical presence of others, it's easy to slip into cycles of distraction and multitasking, or taking long, luxurious breaks.
"Setting boundaries and enforcing them takes discipline and determination," says Dahna Chandler, a communications consultant from the D.C. area. Whether it's committing to keeping phones and laptops out of the bedroom, blocking social media during your most productive hours, or using the hard stop of the kids coming home from school to mark the end of the workday, there are ways to keep distinct lines between work and home.
Conversely, it's just as easy to skip lunch and never take a single break, pushing yourself to unhealthy overextension. Controlling your own schedule can easily lead to burnout if you aren't paying attention to your hunger or exhaustion. "You need to schedule things that force you to get away from your work and take downtime intentionally," says Chandler.
For years, I used Google and Outlook reminders to break for lunch or step away from the computer. Sometimes, a few freelancing neighbors and I would take an afternoon walk together. Now, during slower weeks, I try to set aside one of my afternoon time slots to watching a favorite Netflix show while having a cup of tea — a mini "mental health" day.
4. Fake a Commute
Though the traditional employee's commute can be stressful, it does offer a transition — a chance to unwind and process the workday's events before arriving home. Rituals and routines are a great way to create this transition in a home office setting.
Perhaps actually closing the laptop signals the time to pour a glass of wine; you've moved from work mode into home mode. Or now that you've answered your client's last email, you can empty the dishwasher. You can even take a walk or a drive around your neighborhood to give yourself a literal commute. Whatever you choose, find a consistent way to end the workday so your house can become home again. ▲