If you’re working from home, completing a day can feel amorphous. Checking email or responding to Slack DMs begins to stretch into the dinner hour, and before you know it, you’ve been staring at your laptop for 10 hours straight. So, how does a remote workday end nowadays?
Part of the issue, especially during pandemic times, is just the proximity of our work and personal lives. With the disappearance of buffer activities, like commuting, workers lack a physical separation between work and everything else. After all, when your computer is just a few feet away (or maybe zero feet away if you use the same device recreationally), it can be easy to just keep working. Studies on remote work during the pandemic show a majority of workers (56%) admit to struggling to log off at the end of the day.
As someone who has worked remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, I have certainly had these feelings—especially when COVID case numbers are high, and it’s so cold and dark out by the time the workday is over.
One of the solutions I’ve read about involves scheduling an evening activity for “clocking out” at the end of your workday, thereby creating a more intentional boundary between work and personal life. In a 2020 Atlassian blog post, Sarah Goff-Dupont laid out a few of these daily wrap-up rituals, which included activities as simple as taking your dog for a walk. Such rituals work well for people known as work-life “segmentors,” who are at their most productive when they end each their workdays with a clear shut-down activity.
So this January, I decided to try an experiment using different activities to “clock out” from my workday. I knew I wanted to try a range of tasks, including practical winding-down behaviors (like cooking dinner) and other actions that were more leisurely (like watching a movie). I decided I would record my feelings about them as I did them, and at the end of the experiment, I could see if any helped me set better boundaries between my personal and professional lives.
Here’s what I discovered:
Making a crappy thing was okay
Back in April 2020, Fast Company published a piece by writer Gwen Moran about the joys of making mediocre art—basically, that having a creative practice can be an important antidote in stressful times, even if the final product isn’t a masterpiece. I thought this type of transitional activity had potential. This sort of “clock out” routine, which celebrated messiness and experimentation, sounded different enough from my workday that I would enjoy it.
On day 3 of the experiment, I tried my hand at making some resin jewelry, which I’ve browsed on Etsy but never realized I could make on my own. I purchased the supplies at a craft store, including a UV light and decorative fillings for each resin necklace. I made sure to review a guide that was provided with the light but generally tried to keep the exercise playful.
I ended up making three different resin pendants. One came out with air bubbles, and another wasn’t super symmetrical. But despite these tiny flaws, the important part was the end result: I felt I was able to pull my brain away from work and fully immerse myself in a non-work activity.
On day 4, I spent time cooking something new with my mom. Together, these activities ended up being two of my favorite activities since they were so immersive. In the end, it didn’t matter how amateurish my resin necklace was, or what my meal looked like—because I still felt satisfied with the effort, and it forced me to engage with something other than screens.
In contrast, one day I opted to call a friend, and on another day I chose to watch a movie. Neither of these were especially useful in symbolically “shutting the door” on my workday. Perhaps this was because neither activity resulted in a final “product” (aside from social connection, or the thrill of entertainment, respectively). Creating something with my hands felt best because it was meditative, thereby allowing me to focus on one task and power down my brain.
The more immersive, the better
If I had done this exercise pre-pandemic, I undoubtedly would have picked more social activities, like hanging out with friends, or attending a busy event. But since I was trying to do this experiment safely, I had to think creatively about engaging ways to do activities by myself or in very small group. This proved difficult to do if I wanted to avoid Zoom calls and other work-related technology.
On day 5 of my experiment, I watched the 2021 movie, The Novice, on my personal computer, but it just wasn’t the same as going to a theater. At first I felt distracted and slightly agitated at the sight of another screen, but fortunately, the hour-and-a-half movie was engaging on its own and began to pull me in after 20 minutes. By the movie’s end, I felt like I had properly transitioned to a different activity.
The next evening, I tried something that required a bit more effort: a strength-building yoga class. I don’t personally do a lot of strength training, so I felt this particular activity would be mentally engaging, too. And it did prove to be a challenge for me (I would even say it was a struggle at times), but that meant I was forced to pay attention and react quickly. Like some of my crafting attempts, I wasn’t completely successful, but afterward I felt refreshed and satisfied with myself, thanks to the magic of endorphins.
One thing I didn’t like was that I had to drive in the dark for about 20 minutes to get to the class, which felt a bit gloomy and chore-like after a full day of work. But in the end, this effort paid off, and even reminded me of the ritual of a pre-pandemic commute.
The most successful activities were those that allowed for a complete detachment from work priorities, but didn’t require my brain to function at high speed or untangle a complex task. And I felt that using my hands really gave me the appropriate mental distance from my work, which involves lots of screen time.
I did find the pace of six activities in six days to be fairly exhausting. Scheduling all these tasks felt a bit like extra work, but I did learn that it can lead to impressive results. I see how taking an exercise class consistently can really serve as a goalpost during a hectic work week. Moreover, I could see how diligence is required to get better at building a skill (or in my case, building upper-arm strength).
My experiment of clocking out may not have been perfectly scientific, but it reinforced the need to set clear markers between the work and home environments. When I was able to divide the two, I felt more refreshed at the end of my current day, and more mentally prepared to begin the next.