A Separate Peace

Blurring the boundaries between work and home can disturb your psyche--and your business.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the December 1998 issue of HomeOfficeMag.com. Subscribe »

People who run businesses from home are of two distinct minds.

Some need to draw the mental and physical lines that separate home from so they can make a clear distinction for themselves and their families. Others rail at the thought, and consider artificial boundaries contrary to the whole purpose of being homebased. "When I first started working from home, I tried to block off time when I would work and do nothing else, but I quickly realized that didn't cut it for me," says Diana Salerno, a consultant in Houston. "Ideas flow whether I'm in or out of my work area. I need to able to work on my `home to do' list when I'm in my office, and I need to answer a business call when I'm outside playing with my dog."

On the other hand, those who need to establish clear boundaries agree with Linda Sizemore's assessment that it's too easy for work to intrude upon our home lives, especially when there's a business in the home. Sizemore, a clinical psychologist in Highland Park, , urges entrepreneurs to set up a system. "When they're working at home, they concentrate on their business. And when they leave their home offices, they do home- or personal-related tasks," she says. "If they can't make this transition clear, their personal lives drop to the lowest rung on the scale, their personal needs don't get met, and they burn out."

Two Lives To Live

If you're of the mind-set that your personal and business lives should remain separate, here are a number of strategies (some of them simply mind games) to help you make the transition from one life to another as clean as possible.

*Dress up your office for business. For Christel Beard, a freelance public relations writer and president of PRowrite, this means putting the name of her business on the door to her San Clemente, California, home office, so that as soon as she opens her office door in the morning, she knows she's at . Conversely, when she shuts it at night, she's in a different mode entirely.

When Ed Eisen, owner of Eisen & Associates, a consulting firm in Philadelphia, walks into his office, the pictures on the wall project an overriding message--that he'd better get down to business. Work-related photos and mementos are everywhere, and a huge calendar that tracks business appointments eclipses one wall. People seeking clean transitions and boundaries make every effort to keep children's toys out of their offices and work papers out of the dining room.

*Dress yourself for your role. Few who work at home don a suit when they move from the kitchen to their home office. But many people feel they need to be dressed in something other than a robe to get into the mental state of work. One entrepreneur, for instance, relies on shoes to symbolize the transition. Right inside her office door is a pair of comfortable dress shoes, which she slips on when she enters her office for the day. Right outside the door are sneakers; she changes into these when she takes a lunch break or leaves the office for the day. When she's wearing dress shoes, personal issues seem far away, and when she's wearing sneakers, she doesn't think much about work. For her, the change of shoes signals the transition from home to work and back again.

*Organize your life so you're not jumping back and forth between home and work. Whether or not we want it to happen, it's almost impossible to keep personal thoughts from seeping into our home offices or, conversely, business thoughts from spilling over into the kitchen. One way to handle thoughts about what has to be done in one part of the house while you're in another is to keep two separate "to do" lists. The "work to do" is kept in the living part of your home, while the "home to do" is in the office.

If you suddenly remember something that you have to do at work while you're watering the lawn in the evening, for example, don't rush into your office to do it. Write it down on your "work to do" list, and bring the list with you when you enter the office the next morning. Do the reverse if you remember you have to pick up a prescription when you're in the midst of a business project. Note it on your "home to do" list, and at lunch time or after work, head for the drugstore. Somehow, writing down a worry removes it as a distraction. It gives you license to say to yourself, "That's enough of that right now. I'll take care of it later."

*Set working guidelines for yourself. Workaholics who just can't seem to leave their home offices find that setting a computer-generated alarm to go off at a specific time (say 6 p.m.) works well. It forces them to close up shop and make the transition back to the home--especially if it beeps again every few minutes until the computer is shut down. Other entrepreneurs use family members as their alarms. "Stay out of the office until 5 p.m., but then come and get me" is the order many issue to babysitters or teenagers. Still others cover their computers and fax machines when they leave the office at the end of the day. All these actions signal that the business day has ended.

*Use your phone system to draw the line between home and office. Ed Eisen has three lines in his office--a business line, a fax line and a home line--but the ringer on his home phone is turned off during business hours. And limiting the ring and the accessibility of your business line in your home means you won't be tempted to pick it up if it rings at 7 p.m. and you're in the middle of dinner. Most businesses don't require round-the-clock servicing; an answering machine or voice-mail system can pick up after-hour messages. If you have to be available for crises, however, Sizemore suggests an emergency paging system. "People don't like to use [an emergency] number unless there's a true emergency," she says, "whereas they'll call at all hours of the evening if you pick up your business line as a matter of course."

*Commute. Even though many entrepreneurs run businesses from their homes to avoid the commute, some create an artificial one to draw a mental distinction between home and work. In New York City, one writer walks five blocks to the subway each morning, buys a paper, and then comes back to his apartment to work. He uses his "commute" to plan and organize his workday. Others leave "the office" each evening and go to the store, out for a walk, or pick up the kids before coming home again. And Eisen's three-times-a-week workouts after work at a gym half an hour away not only provide him with an emotional and physical distance from work . . . but also help him ease the transition between his two adjacent worlds.


When Ed Eisen steps into his home office, he's going through a mental door, not a real one. The real door is just a folding one that's always open to the rest of the house. "I'd feel claustrophobic if it were closed," he says.

Inside, Eisen has no problem getting down to as a public relations and communications consultant. The photos and the mementos in his Philadelphia office remind him of his accomplishments as an entrepreneur and as a former reporter. Eisen's walls are adorned with a picture of him and Senator Ted Kennedy, a signed photo of Philadelphia's former mayor Frank Rizzo, and a framed Time magazine cover featuring one of his clients. A red boxing glove signed by former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier sits on a nearby bookshelf.

"I never realized it before," Eisen says, "but it's the décor that helps me make the transition from home to work."

Contact Sources

Eisen & Associates, (215) 745-4168, greatpr@philly.infi.net

PRowrite, (949) 366-9189, ckbeard@compuserve.com

Patricia Schiff Estess is author of Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage and Kids, Money & Values (both published by Betterway) and president of Working Families Inc., a New York City firm specializing in family memoirs.


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