Finding Freedom Through Boundaries  

Due to the quarantine, all people who can work from home have been told to do so by stay-at-home orders. For many it’s the first time they’ve had to work from home for weeks on end. A lot of people like it, but others are struggling, especially if they share their homes with spouses and children who also need a place to collaborate with colleagues, teachers and classmates.

It’s easy to focus on work while in an office because, well, it’s why you get up early, shower, and commute to the office five days a week. Home is way more multidimensional, and that means distractions abound. It takes some effort to concentrate on lining up sales calls or proofreading a report when the dog is barking to be let out or dishes are piling up in the sink.

I’ve worked from home for the past five years, and I can tell you it requires some tactics and strategies to be successful at it. This blog is to share what I’ve learned, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. Of course, boundaries differ from person to person, but the need for them doesn’t.

If you find you’re unable to keep track of what day it is, or to get out of the work zone so you can be fully present with your family or roommates read on!

Formalize Your Workspace

Formalizing your work life within your home will help you avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of working from home: working all the time. Most of us have a bottomless pile of work we can do, and it’s all too easy to just keep plugging away. But you need downtime, and establishing boundaries is the best way to ensure you get it.

Start Early

Now that you no longer need to commute to the office, start your workday earlier. An earlier start time will give you space to get your job done and catch up if you fall behind for some reason. It’s no fun to miss happy hour with your roommates or dinner with the kids because you can’t finish your work until 8:00 at night. Early can mean different things to different people, but you’ll know what feels early to you.

Formalize Your Work Mindset

Everybody has a set of habits that puts them into a work mindset — wearing more formal clothes, blow drying their hair rather than pulling it back into a ponytail, cleaning up their desk at the start of the day, drinking coffee as they read industry newsletters. It’s important to keep up with those transitions so that you can psych yourself up for a productive workday. You may need to come up with some new transitions if your old ones are no longer applicable but be sure to do so because they’re important. You need some kind of demarcation between work and home life.

Another component to that is work hygiene, by which I mean, you need to create a space that you’ll use only for work while you’re in lockdown. If you don’t have a separate home office your kitchen table may seem an obvious substitute but beware. If it’s also where you plan family meals, read your favorite blogs, and strike up spontaneous conversations with your kids it’s likely to be a source of constant distractions and stress. Carve out a place in your house to serve solely as your office cubicle and make sure everyone in your household knows that when you’re there you are at work.

Another trick I use is to put physical reminders that connect me to the Something Digital headquarters in New York City. For instance, I have a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge and a map of New York hanging in my office, along with a bunch of other things that make me think of work.

Finally, be wary of making yourself too comfortable now that you’re no longer in the office. That includes changing fully out of your PJ’s before you hop onto your Zoom meetings. Formal from the waist up doesn’t cut it, and not just because you may embarrass yourself in front of your colleagues. Clothes help us define the roles we need to play at any given moment.

Personally, I’ve always put on work attire during office hours and change out of them at the end of the workday. You don’t need to go to that length if you don’t want to, but some kind of clothing adjustment will help you mark the difference between work hours and home life.

Create the Right Auditory Environment

Don’t overlook the auditory environment of your home office. I know a lot of people who keep the TV or radio on whenever they’re at home, but what works as white noise while you’re cooking dinner or dusting the living room will be a distraction when building a spreadsheet. Be sure to create in your home the auditory environment — silence or music — that helps you concentrate while you’re doing your office work.

Take Smart, Regular Breaks

Don’t be afraid to take breaks daily — they’re good for you and they help you concentrate. But be smart about it. A break isn’t picking up your iPhone to see what’s happening on Twitter (that’s a distraction). A break is pouring yourself a cup of coffee and sipping it somewhere other than your workspace. For me, a break means throwing a ball for our dogs or jumping on the rowing machine for five minutes. Don’t worry about setting a specific time in the day for your breaks. Breaks work best when they’re between different tasks or projects and you want a mental reset.

Don’t Overdo it with Multitasking

If you’re working from home for the first time you may feel the need to multitask more than you normally do but resist that temptation. We all need uninterrupted time to concentrate on a project or complex task. In an office, we can signal to our colleagues that we don’t want to be disturbed simply by closing our office doors. We don’t have the luxury of those visual clues at home, so we need other strategies. It’s okay to turn off your email notifications, put your mobile device in another room, or set your Slack to Do Not Disturb in order to carve out time to concentrate.

And speaking of doing more than one thing at a time: don’t keep snacks at your desk. In the office you’d never open a family-size bag of chips and chow down on them out of fear of becoming the brunt of office jokes. Don’t do it at home either because it’s all too easy to eat the entire bag when you’re in the zone.

Invest in Yourself

As I said earlier, you probably have an unlimited amount of work to do, and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of working all the time. One way to counteract that tendency is to set some goals that are outside the scope of your job, whether that’s tackling a home project you’ve been meaning to do for years or preparing healthier meals for you and your family.

We all have books we’ve been meaning to read or online classes we’ve wanted to take to advance our careers. Now is the perfect time to cross a few of those things off your list. Working towards a goal or two is a great way to invest in yourself, and to remind you that there is more to life than your job.

The other benefit of setting goals is that when you work from home, it’s really easy to divide your day between work and veg. And while vegging is absolutely a fine way to spend one’s time, it’s very easy to overdo it. Working towards a goal will prevent the guilt we all feel when we waste too much time or squander opportunities. And it will make those times when we do allow ourselves to veg feel all the more pleasurable.

Invest in Others

You may be working from home, but you’re not on an island. You need to find a way to continue telling those jokes or stories to your work buddies and eating lunch with your teammates.

In an office it’s very easy to invest in your colleagues. You can walk over to her desk to help troubleshoot a line of code or ask the three people in the breakroom which design they like better. And they, in turn, will stop by your desk when they want your opinion.

Continuing those investments from a home office requires you to be a lot more intentional about it. You need to actively say, “hey, I think Brad would really like this quote from this article, and I’ll share it with him now.” It also means being generous with your acknowledgments when a colleague helps you out and being transparent about what’s on your mind.

Fortunately, technology makes those investments really easy. You can post articles, videos and memes to a Slack channel, or schedule a Zoom lunch. (I know a group of friends who had a dinner party by cooking the same recipe and then jumping on Zoom to eat it together.)

To be sure, technology allows us to do our basic jobs from home, but it also allows us to recreate those vital connections that make us feel human. Don’t worry about being annoying (it’s up to your colleagues to decide when to read your stuff).

I think we err on the side of not reaching out via technology because it feels like an interruption, but you should trust that your colleagues have developed ways to tune stuff out when they need to concentrate. When they do get the time to read the articles or watch the videos you sent, they’ll be glad you took the time to think of them.

Enjoy Yourself

This may seem a bit odd given the current situation but now is the time to nurture joy. The quarantine has given us something we’ve always wished we had: ample time so spend with our loved ones. Enjoy the time you have to be at home because we may not have the opportunity to spend this much time with them again. We should celebrate it.

In my mind, John Krasinski personifies this spirit. A few weeks ago he decided to host a nationwide prom night for all the seniors who’d miss out on this rite of passage as a result of our need to practice social distancing. I got a lump in my throat watching how entire families put on their finest threads and listened to Chance the Rapper and a host of other A-listers perform live at these home-based proms. We see these acts of generosity and creativity all over the world, and they’re unbelievably moving.

Be a part of it. If your roommate can’t go home to see his family, find out from his mom what his favorite meal is and cook it for him. Join the millions of people who step outside their doors to applaud the first responders and healthcare workers on the frontline of the fight against the disease. These are extraordinary times, and people are responding in extraordinary ways. Dive headfirst into that joy. Do you have other tips and tricks that you use when working from home? Share them with us!

Brian Lange

Brian loves spending time with his wife and four boys. He’s focused on learning more about what’s next in commerce.