In spring 2020, the natural segmentation between work and life collapsed and the vast majority of workers found themselves afloat in an amorphous soup of responsibilities. Some basic concerns around the day-to-day sprung up. When do I answer email? When do I do laundry? When do I see my kids? Many activities went from being somewhat contained within set hours to becoming a possibility at almost any time of the day or night.
For some, especially those with long commutes, this newfound freedom of choice opened up time and space for things like more exercise, family activities, or focused work. But there are others who’ve never quite found their rhythm again, even after a year of remote working, and it’s starting to take a toll. They constantly wonder: Am I doing the right thing right now? Am I doing enough? Is it really okay to not work during certain times when working from home means that I’m perpetually at the office?
If you find yourself in the latter camp, there’s a way out of the confusion. As a time management coach, here are three areas where I recommend that you set boundaries to be most productive when you work and to really get refreshed during your time off.
Boundaries around work
Working 24/7—or simply feeling that you’re working 24/7—is a prescription for burnout as well as for low overall productivity. Even if your work is fully remote and technically you can work anytime, you shouldn’t always be “on.”
I find it’s easiest to define healthy boundaries around work when there is a set hour for you to start and stop. This distinction is similar to the role of a daily commute that forces you to go into and then leave the office on a regular schedule. To do this, you can ask yourself: If I had to catch a train, how would I organize my day? How much time would I spend on certain items? What would I say yes and no to?
I also encourage you to think back to the kind of boundaries you set pre-remote work: Did you take the weekends off? How much work did you do after hours, if any? And then seriously interrogate if there is a legitimate reason why those boundaries can’t be the same as when you were working in the office. If there is (for instance, you still need to do extra work with your kids during the day for school) then you could set up hours in the evening to make up for time lost during the day. But if you can still get all of your work finished during the day, like you used to do, allow yourself to wrap up on time, as you did before the pandemic, and give the evenings and weekends to yourself.
To help reinforce those boundaries, I recommend putting your work computer away, not checking work email, and ensuring work notifications aren’t coming through to your phone. If necessary, have a conversation with your colleagues and clients about your availability so they know what to expect and how to reach you if something is truly urgent.
As an example, one of my coaching clients works with a lot of external clients, and she includes in her email signature her regular hours as well as where to text her if something needs an immediate response.
Boundaries around the home
The work-from-home environment has looked really different than usual, with work and school often occurring in the same space for the last year and few months.
On the positive side, some of my coaching clients have gotten to do things like have lunch with their spouse or see their kids much more. On the negative side, it can feel harder to say no to engaging in personal activities when you’re at home but must devote your mental energy to work.
Whether it’s with your kids, roommates, significant other, or pets, your first action to setting boundaries at home is to clarify for yourself what you want. Referencing my advice on work boundaries above, this should be easy to draw out.
Afterward, communicate with the people around you about your expectations. For instance, letting your family know, “When I’m in the place where I work, I need you to wait to talk to me unless it’s an emergency.” Or “If this is a five-minute conversation, we can talk right away; if it’s an hour-long conversation, let’s talk once I’m off.”
Then consistently reinforce these boundaries. Stick to the times you scheduled yourself to start and end work and frequently reiterate when you are and are not available.
Boundaries around your personal needs
Sometimes the issues with boundaries come from outside yourself. But particularly if work-from-home fatigue has set in, the most important area where you may need to set boundaries could be within yourself.
Get honest about your areas of weakness and potential lures for distraction. Are you a sucker for self-help articles? Do you get glued to the news? Do you suddenly feel the urge to clean when it’s time to work on big projects? Do social media scrolling and Netflix consume your evening? And do you often get drawn into checking work email late at night?
In short, you know yourself. And if something in your own life is causing you to get off track, address it head-on. That could mean setting up app and website blockers. That could mean giving yourself specific times to clean before or after work so you’re not tempted to tidy up during the day. That could mean making plans for your evenings and weekends and enlisting some positive peer pressure to stick with what will make you truly happy, such as going on a walk, reading a book, or learning something new.
Structure in the age of remote work is much more challenging because you have fewer natural boundaries. But it is possible (and necessary) to make and keep boundaries in these three areas for a more productive, enjoyable, and sustainable lifestyle.