When you work from home, the lines between work and life can blur.
To be sure, working from home has many benefits, including no commute, fewer distractions, and a flexible schedule.
Even with all these benefits, however, working from home can also lead to an unhealthy lifestyle in which you only work. This can put a strain on your relationships, as well as your mental health.
How do you make sure that work doesn’t bleed over into your life? How do you maintain work-life balance when your workplace and home are the same?
In this guide, I’ll draw on my 5+ years of working from home and give you some practical tips to ensure that work stays at work…even if your workplace is only a few steps from your living room.
Note: This guide mainly focuses on how to work from home. If you’re looking for tips on how to study from home instead, check out our guide to succeeding in online classes.
“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” – Annie Dillard
When you work in an office, your work schedule is usually determined by someone else. Your company likely expects you to be in the office from 9 to 5 (or another set of hours). You may have some control over your schedule within that block of time, but the basic hours are more or less set. And once 5 pm rolls around, you know that you’re done with work.
When you work from home, there’s typically less structure in your schedule. Some companies will use extreme means like time tracking software to ensure that you’re working during specific hours, but most won’t bother.
Therefore, your schedule is now up to you. And if you want to make sure that your work doesn’t stretch throughout all hours of the day, it’s in your best interest to create a schedule.
The specifics of the schedule don’t matter (aside from any specific rules your company has, of course). So I recommend making a schedule that helps you be productive. If this means getting up at 5 am and working from 6 am until 2 pm, great. If you’re more of a night owl and want to get up at 9, go for it!
But whatever you do, be sure you map out your work schedule in advance and take it seriously. When it’s “quitting time,” stop all your work and go do something else.
Without the workspace of a traditional office, you need to make your own. It can be tempting to sit on your couch or lie in bed with your laptop open, but I advise against this. Because if you work in the same place that you sit to relax, the boundaries between work and leisure time can disintegrate.
Instead, I recommend having a space that you only (or at least primarily) use for work. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate home office, either. My “office” is a corner of my bedroom with a standing desk, office chair, and power strip.
What matters is that it’s a defined space that’s for working and nothing else. This way, when you’re done working, you can leave “the office” and enter the other spaces of your home that are for living, not working.
Need some inspiration for setting up your work or study space? Check out these real-life examples.
When you commute to an office, you have some sort of morning routine by default. Even if this consists of running out of your house at the last minute while you guzzle coffee, it’s still something that you do before work itself starts.
But when the distance between your bed and office is measured in feet instead of miles, it can be tempting to jump straight into work when you wake up. If you can, I recommend avoiding this. Otherwise, you may find that you’ve done nothing all day but work.
Instead, it’s better to have a morning routine that you complete before work begins. Not only will this keep some space between life and work, but it will also set you up to work more productively.
Your specific morning routine is a personal preference, but we recommend that you include activities that will energize and inspire you, including:
- Hydration – Drink a glass of water (or two) along with that morning coffee.
- Nutrition – Eat a healthy breakfast with a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and good fats.
- Exercise – Get your blood pumping with a walk, yoga, calisthenics, bike ride, or whatever exercise you want.
- Learning – Stimulate your mind with a nonfiction book, essay, podcast, or educational video (just be sure to avoid a YouTube rabbit hole).
For more information on creating a morning ritual, check out this guide.
“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As terrible as the evening commute can be, it does offer a clear signal to the end of work. Before it, you’re at work; after it, you’re at home.
Without a commute, however, you can lose that clear separation between work and home. While sticking to a schedule should help alleviate this, you may feel a need for something more definitive to signal the end of work.
For this reason, I recommend having an end of work ritual. With this process, you can wind down from work and set yourself up for a productive tomorrow.
As with a morning ritual, the details of this are up to you. But here are a few things that I recommend including in your end of work ritual:
- Close all work apps and browser tabs.
- Check your calendar for tomorrow.
- Make a to-do list for the next day (this will keep you from worrying about tasks you didn’t get to today).
If you miss the separation that a commute gives you, you can even physically leave your house, walk around the block, and return. A friend gave me this advice when I started working from home, and I’ve found it to be remarkably helpful (especially on a Friday afternoon).
Working from home means using a combination of email, team chat apps, and sometimes video calls to communicate with your coworkers. While these apps make remote work possible, they’re also a common culprit for a lack of work-life balance.
When everyone is (theoretically) accessible 24/7, it can feel like you’re working all the time. To prevent yourself from staying up until 2 am responding to work emails, avoid checking email (and other communication apps) after work is over.
Unless you work in finance, emergency services, or news, there’s rarely a message so urgent that it can’t wait until the next day.
Having trouble staying on top of your work emails? Here’s how to tame your email inbox.
The advice in the previous section won’t work unless your entire team is on board. If responding to emails at all hours is the norm in your company culture, for instance, then your boss or coworkers may get frustrated when you don’t respond.
To avoid problems, it’s best to define boundaries and expectations with your boss and team from the outset of working from home. Otherwise, you risk defaulting to a culture of 24/7 communication and stress.
Here are some things to discuss:
- What hours are we expected to work?
- When are we expected to respond to work messages?
- In what situations (if any) is it acceptable to contact someone outside of work hours? (I.e., what constitutes a work “emergency”?)
If you can get clear on these questions, everyone will have a much better work-life balance.
Are you working or relaxing right now? It should be an easy question to answer, but the online nature of remote work can make it hard to say at times.
This is because, with no boss looking over your shoulder, it’s tempting to mix work activities with recreational ones. For instance, it might seem harmless to have the TV on while you work. Some people may even check social media or respond to texts.
While I think that certain kinds of media can help you focus (such as music), I advise against mixing other forms of entertainment with your work. Not only do these activities destroy your focus, but they also break down the boundaries between work and relaxation.
If you’re having trouble resisting the siren song of social media or the quick distraction of YouTube clips, I recommend blocking them with an app like Freedom.
Note: Some people claim to work quite productively with a movie or TV show going in the background. Writer Roxane Gay, for instance, says in the acknowledgments to her essay collection Bad Feminist that she wrote much of the book with Law & Order: SUV on.
If the background noise of TV or movies helps you focus, then keep doing what works for you. But if you find it’s taking too long to do your work, consider removing media-oriented distractions.
After a long day at the office, getting to go home is often its own reward. But if your office doesn’t feel different from your living room, then it can be tempting to keep on working.
To help you get out of work on time, schedule something to look forward to. Here are a few ideas:
- The walk you take as part of your end of work ritual.
- A hobby that helps you relax.
- A session playing your favorite video game.
- A compelling novel that you can’t wait to keep reading.
- Cooking a tasty meal for you and/or your family.
- A club meeting (even if it’s a virtual one).
- Watching the latest episode of your favorite TV show.
And the above are just a few ideas. What matters is having something that you care about and look forward to outside of work. This is important even if you work in an office, but it’s critical when you work from home.
I mentioned in the beginning that working from home can put a strain on your relationships. This is most acute with people who share your living space.
Without proper expectations and planning, working from home can make it seem like you don’t care about the people you live with. In the worst cases, you can end up neglecting your most important relationships in the pursuit of “finishing one more thing.”
To avoid these problems, I recommend talking with your family, roommates, significant other, or whoever else you live with about when and where you plan to work. For instance, you could tell your roommates that when you’re sitting at the desk in the living room, you’re “at work” and shouldn’t be disturbed.
In addition to preventing conflicts, setting expectations with your household will also ensure that you work productively and have someone to hold you accountable when you’re not supposed to be working.
Note: I don’t have kids, but I recognize that working from home while also caring for children can be an immense challenge. For guidance on how to work from home with kids, check out this guide from The Wirecutter.
If you find yourself always “staying late” to finish work even with a schedule, then it’s worth looking at how you work. Often, the issue isn’t a lack of time but rather a lack of focus and intelligent work methods.
I already mentioned the importance of removing distractions like social media and your phone, and that’s still the number one thing I recommend if you’re having trouble getting your work done on time.
But in addition to removing external distractions, make sure you aren’t working inefficiently. The most common issue here is an attempt at multitasking. I say “attempt” because the human brain is terrible at multitasking.
Each time you switch between tasks, there’s a “switching cost” in which your brain takes a brief amount of time to switch to the new task. While it may only take your brain a few tenths of a second to switch, these tiny intervals of time can add up over the course of a day, ultimately slowing down your work.
A classic example is having your email and Slack open while you’re attempting to write a report. You may feel more productive because you’re responding to messages from coworkers and writing a report at the same time.
But in reality, you’re just being less effective at both of these tasks. It would be more efficient to write the report without distractions and then spend a dedicated block of time responding to messages.
This is just one example. For more detailed advice on how to work efficiently, check out our full course on creating a productivity system:
Working from home in a healthy, productive way can be a struggle, especially if you’re new to remote work. I hope this guide has shown you that you can enjoy all the benefits of working from home without compromising your life outside of work.
Looking for more advice on working or studying from home? Check out our list of resources for remote working and distance learning.
Image Credits: woman working in home office