Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Many of us were excited by the idea of working from home, when public policies were 1st implemented that limited travel and forced many of us to shift from commuting to work to performing the majority of our work from home. Our minds basked in the ideas of no more annoying commutes, being able to sleep in longer, and most importantly getting to always poop in our own bathrooms,…a dream come true.
A couple of months go by and our dream has taken an unexpected turn…you now get contacted by your colleagues at all hours of the day, you feel like you are always on the job, you notice a feeling of burnout growing with each passing day, and you begin to have trouble calming down and being able to sleep.
Many of you, many of my patients, friends, colleagues and myself included, have suffered from the work-life mashup that is almost inevitable when you work predominantly from your home.
You cannot fully relax if you are on call -> needing to remain available to respond to a possible work related phone call or email throughout your entire day. Some of us think we can but there is a significant difference between knowing you are truly off of work and won’t be bothered and when you are ‘kinda sorta’ off work yet you may get a phone call or email from one of your bosses which has you checking your email right before going to bed each night just to make sure you don’t miss anything important.
One seemingly small concession leads into another and over time the mashing of work with home life ramps up and creates a situation that can make it hard for your mind to know when it’s time to relax. This can lead to an overloaded mind that is more susceptible to burnout, depression, overactive thinking, addictive behaviors, insomnia, weight gain and anxiety.
Before the shift to working more at home, our work roles had a clear & circumscribed place away from our home where we did most of our work. This kept the boundaries between work & home more distinct and helped our minds better separate our work selves from our home selves.
When we commute to work, it might be time consuming & annoying but it serves an important purpose: it helps transition our minds from home to work and then from work to home.
Fundamental principle: places and objects (rooms, clothes, chairs, equipment, etc.) you interact with become conditioned and tagged by the past emotional experiences you have had with them. For example, if you wear a uniform to work or to play a sport, then the uniform becomes conjoined with the typical emotions and experiences that occur while wearing the uniform. Over time, whenever you put on the uniform it will tend to elicit the associations (emotions, thoughts, memories) that have been linked with it. It’s a form of classical conditioning similar to the bell in the famous Pavlov’s dog experiment.
Those of us who work more from home now, need to be mindful on how we interact with the places and objects in our home while we are in work mode juxtaposed to when we are in leisure mode.
It is vital to not let your work mode infect the casual objects and places in your home so that you can preserve your leisure mode and not let the two modes mash into each other. Otherwise your mind will struggle to find true rest and this will negatively impact both your overall mental well-being and work performance.
What to do?
1) Maintain a single place in your home where you do your work.
Do not bring your work into your bedroom (unless you like shitty sleep) or other areas of your home where you like to unwind and relax. Ideally it’s best to have a separate home office room for when you are in work mode. If this is not possible, there are many ways to compartmentalize a room so that it can keep your work mode from bleeding into your leisure mode. Two helpful starting ideas are:
a) Set up a room divider. For instance, you can use an open bookshelf as a divider and have it stick out to divide the room into leisure vs. office space or use a traditional room divider for that task.
b) Set up two types of lighting: 1) Work lighting -> brighter and whiter – > when your done with work you then switch to leisure lighting -> dimmer and a more soothing yellow.
2) DO NOT wear your comfy casual clothes when working from home.
I know it’s convenient to roll out of bed and do your zoom calls with half of your pj’s on but unfortunately this will tag your pj’s with the psychological states you encounter while working.
I suggest dressing up the way you would when you go to work. Part of the going to work ritual is priming your brain to get into an advantageous working state of mind which is analogous to when an athlete does a pre-game ritual to help get him/her into a gameday mindset.
If you balk at the idea of putting your entire work outfit on while at home, you can buy separate ‘work from home clothes’ which are optimized for body comfort that you only use for work-at-home and not for anything else. That way you can still maximize body comfort AND minimize work bleeding into your home life.
3) Maintain a preparing for work ritual and I am done with work ritual. Here are 3 areas to consider when creating your rituals.
a) Use Music to help change your state of mind
Consider creating music playlists that you can use to help put yourself into the mindset you want to be in. Start of by creating a “getting ready to work” playlist and a “thank goodness I am done with work” playlist. Keep these playlists in the back of your mind and any time you hear a song that would fit into either one of these playlists, add the song to keep your playlists fresh and engaging.
b) Change your clothes & move your body
I suggest changing out of your work clothes once you finish your job tasks for the day and go do something physical (preferably outside).
An example that combines both a & b: I have a Happy Groves playlist on Spotify that is loaded with uplifting songs. Once I am done with my work for the day, I put on my HG playlist. While the songs are playing I change my clothes and go outside and do at least 200 jump ropes.
c) Set up firm boundaries around your smartphone and computer
Once you are done with the work tasks for the day (I end my work duties the same way each day by checking my voicemails and then my emails one last time at 6pm) make sure to turn on the do not disturb / no notifications feature on both your phone and computer. Both of these features can be programmed to automatically turn on at a specific time to help remind you to stop working at the time you have planned beforehand.
If you are going to be working more from home, it is essential that you develop boundaries between the places and objects that you use for work vs. the places and objects that you use for leisure.
We explored 3 strategies to fortify and clarify your work – life boundaries:
I hope these 3 ideas help guide & inspire your mind to find innovative ways to help maintain the distinction between work mode vs. leisure mode and to help you shift between these two modes more efficiently and effectively.
The better you get at keeping these two major areas of your life from mashing into each other, the better your mind will function, the better your work performance will be, and the better your home life will be.
-Michael B. Mantz, M.D.