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How to Keep Work and Home Life Separate as You Work Remotely

More people working from home means family and office life are overlapping, sometimes a little too much. Here's how to get some separation that can save your sanity.

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Lots of people are now working from home. On its own, that shift in environment takes some getting used to, especially if you’re used to working in an office. Many working parents are managing their kids' online school and spouses or roommates are spending more time together. It’s feeling more challenging to keep work and home lives separate. 

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Often adding to these challenges is a lack of space. Not everyone has the square footage to spread out and enjoy a dedicated office. For those in smaller spaces like a condo or studio, there are fewer choices to physically separate work from home. What happens when the kitchen table becomes your work desk? 

It’s still possible to find some balance and remain productive in a remote work environment while maintaining your sanity and keeping a happy home. 

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Leverage office processes

One of the best ways to make sure roommates, spouses and kids are on the same page is to borrow some of the work processes that keep everyone informed and organized. 

Start with a house calendar that offers a view of what everyone is up to each day. Parents will know school schedules and kids or roommates will know when you have a conference call and need “quiet time.” 

Create this house schedule by using a large whiteboard calendar or syncing and sharing digital calendars. If you use a digital calendar, use features like the “remind” alert. That way, everyone in the house knows a conference call is about to start so they don’t forget.

Another office process to adopt is the daily meeting. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Simply find ten minutes over breakfast to quickly share expectations and plans and ask each other questions about the day’s anticipated events. 

You can also add a minute of gratitude to the conversation where everyone shares something positive. That will save interruptions or confusion later on. Doing so can set the tone for a much more peaceful work/school/home environment. 

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Making the most of a nonexistent commute

One of the biggest advantages to the new arrangement is the elimination of commutes and school drives from the schedule. Suddenly, you are blessed with valuable extra time, so make the most of it! 

Create a new routine to replace that drive time by using it to help the kids with their school day, get in a walk with your furry family member or prepare meals. 

What you don’t want to do is to use that extra time to do more work. This will only result in burnout and frustration.

Create physical work separation

Even if you are in a studio apartment, it’s still possible to create a separate work space. You might use the kitchen table for your laptop, but when you’re done for the day, put that laptop in a tray or drawer until the next work day. Or make a workbox that includes devices, files, paperwork and anything else that’s work-related.

Physical actions help you mentally close down “work” mode and return your home to a personal space. Remember: “Out of sight, out of mind” can be an effective strategy.

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Get out and about

Despite the current restrictions on some activities, it’s still possible to get out and enjoy some fresh air. This reduces that “cabin fever” experience that comes from spending so much time at home. You also need to step away from your work environment and get moving to avoid becoming too sedentary. 

Even a little bit of exercise helps keep you sharp. Plus, taking a walk or a quick bike ride helps everyone in the house get some space from each other and minimizes irritation.

Establish boundaries with employers or clients

Adjusting to a remote environment is not just about employees and their families or roommates. It’s also a dramatic change for employers or clients who might not have mastered boundaries and feel it's within their rights to contact you at any time. Yet even though they are “in charge,” you still have a say about when you work.

Communicate with clients or employers about start and end times to your work day and week. Stick to those plans and enforce your boundaries by silencing or turning off your devices after work. That way you won’t be tempted to respond and encourage that employer or client behavior. 

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Ask employers for assistance

Even with all these tips, for many it has been a particularly challenging experience that has led to mental health issues. In these times, it is encouraging to see companies beginning to develop and offer stress management and employee wellness programs to address these needs.

Reach out to employers for resources that may help you cope, whether you’re feeling lonely or overwhelmed, struggling with physical problems or facing sad situations like family or financial losses. 

Lower your expectations

Although it is good to have standards, sometimes the expectations we place on ourselves are too high and can lead to considerable additional stress. You would love to be productive, have the kids at the top of their class and live and work in a pristine house. 

The reality might look and feel somewhat different, and you need to be okay with the fact that something has to give. Nothing has to be perfect. Instead, aim for what you can accomplish and focus on what has been achieved. 

Related: How to Support Employees' Mental Health as You Return to the Office

John Boitnott

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John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.