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3 tips for unplugging from work when working remotely

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on October 20, 2020

Working from home has been mostly great for most of us. But the downsides are real. More meetings and longer hours make balancing work and life difficult. And working and living in the same space makes disconnecting when you’re not working even more difficult.

I asked Twitter what people are doing to help disconnect from work while working remotely and got some great advice. The answers revolved around three main themes: Making sure you’re still “commuting,” establishing a routine and sticking to it, and using rituals to delineate work and leisure time.

Let’s dive in.

1. Continue to commute

While we found that not having to commute was one of the top benefits of remote work, there’s value in physically leaving your workplace at the end of the day. Switching spaces is a powerful signal that it’s time to stop thinking about work and switch into “home” mode.

Now that we’re commuting from the bedroom to the home office, we need to find new ways to tell our brains when work begins and ends. Luckily, there are ways to get the commute benefit without burning fossil fuels or even leaving your place.

One way to divide work and home life is to designate one room for work and only go into your “work” room when you're working, as Journalist Erin Gloria Ryan does. This recommendation builds upon research showing that we can train our minds to associate certain places with specific thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Setting aside a specific area for work and only working when we’re there teaches our minds that when we’re there, we’re working. Only working in that space teaches our minds to stop thinking about work when we’re not there.

Not all of us have a whole room we can dedicate to work. There’s five feet of floor space between my bed and my desk in my studio. However, even space-challenged individuals might have room for a separate work chair.

“Make sure you work in a spot that is different to where you don't work,” Retail Strategist James Saretta wrote. “Don't work on the couch where you might watch TV.” Union Activist Alex Palombo also works in one area of her home and leaves that area when she’s done with work.

One additional way to create space between work and play when space is at a premium is to listen to different music when you’re working vs when you’re not. “I listen to lo-fi hip-hop on YouTube only when I'm working so that my brain associates that channel with work time,” Creator Caroline Devine wrote.

2. Stick to a schedule

Another downside to never leaving the office is that it’s easy to feel like you’re always on-call. That feeling is counter to solid work/home boundaries. I heard over and over again that just like it’s important to physically separate home and work life, it’s important to set digital boundaries as well.

C. Avery Little sets their notifications to turn off after 7 PM and communicates their boundaries explicitly to their boss. “I’ve tried to emphasize with them when I am available and when I am not available,” C. Avery Little wrote. “I have this conversation frequently - the more the better.” They also are frank with colleagues about when they can deliver something. It can be scary to say no to late-night conversations and last-minute requests. But your long-term productivity will be higher if you don’t get burned out. And it’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver than to do the opposite.

Reporter Laura J. Nelson puts her laptop in a desk drawer when she’s done for the day, another good move if you’re short on space. Journalist Christopher Mims puts all of his devices in a drawer. “I do wear an Apple Watch where the only alerts are texts so I can know I'm getting critical ones but can ignore all else:Slack, email, social media, push alerts, etc. etc.,” Chris wrote.

Of course, your schedule doesn’t have to line up perfectly with your company’s schedule. When we talked to mothers working from home for COVID-19, we often found they were working odd hours to take care of kids and accommodate their partners’ work schedules. Even if your hours fall outside 9-to-5, it’s helpful to keep the same hours every weekday and communicate to your team when you’re available, and when you’re not.

Pro-tip: Clockwise makes it extremely easy to communicate your working hours to your team and remind them when you are and aren’t available. For example, our Slack sync shows your status next to your name based on your calendar so colleagues always know whether you’re in your working hours.

3. Use rituals

Like confining work to a particular time and place, daily rituals can also signal to the brain when it’s time to work and time to quit working. Obviously, drinking is a popular way to signal to the brain that you’re done working. Alex Palombo likes to mix herself a cocktail or cook a meal after work.

Closing the laptop to signal the end of the workday is nearly as popular as drinking. “Work shuts down entirely when the PC shuts down,” Graduate Student Jackie Fiest wrote.

Changing into work clothes at the beginning of the day and into “play” clothes after work even though they don’t necessarily need to wear anything specific for anyone else’s benefit is another popular strategy. “For some reason the change of clothes is key,” Journalist Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote.

Walks are another popular ritual to separate work and home time.

When Erin ends her workday, she likes to work out or run an errand. Laura likes yoga. Both like to get away from screens and do activities that are very different from their jobs.

Many people said they switch to their personal laptops when they’re done working. I do something similar. When I’m done for the day, I like to move from my desk to the couch to read a book or watch some TV on my personal laptop. Sometimes I’ll still head back to my desk later to work on personal projects, since it’s much easier to write at my desk versus the couch. But making the switch right at quitting time helps me adjust into home mode.

Other rituals include signing out of your work account when you’re done for the day, which still works when you don’t have two rooms or two computers. You could also switch operating systems. “I dual boot Windows and Linux (Fedora),” Programmer Tetris McKenna wrote. “I use the Fedora install for work or other ‘boring’ tasks, and Windows for games and other fun stuff. Helps me to keep a clean divide mentally and digitally.”

Going forward

Working from home has many advantages. A clear distinction between work and home life isn’t one of them. The Twitterverse was more than happy to share how they’re creating a better work/life balance. Their tips centered around finding ways to commute without a traditional commute, sticking to a regular schedule, and using rituals to tell your brain it’s time to stop working.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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