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How to keep your remote job from taking over your life

Remote working

Remote jobs are wonderful. Remote jobs are horrible. At any point during the work week, either or both sentiments could be true. While some of your happiness is dictated by the people you work with, much of your happiness will stem from your ability to draw lines between your work and your personal life.

This may sound counterintuitive. For some, remote work provides a way to spend more time doing things they love. Others work remotely because their personal circumstances demand it. In many cases, the ability to blend the professional with the personal is what makes the arrangement work at all. However, there is such a thing as too much work life blend. Only you can say when things are too intermixed. One person’s successful blend is another person’s train wreck.

Bring back the commute

There might be things you miss about working in the company office. Commuting to work probably isn’t one of them. That said, commuting to and from work provides a transition you don’t get moving from your kitchen table to your office. This is particularly true if your kitchen table is your office. You can answer work emails and texts while making dinner, and it’s hard not to if there is a looming deadline or a project is unfinished. If you’re a parent, your home life can run screaming into your work space, blurring the line between personal time and work time still further.

I’m not suggesting that you need to leave your house and travel to a new place (unless you want to). Rather, build a mental commute that helps you move into or out of your work day.

Build rituals

Rituals provide that small pause between what came before and the next activity. These rituals need not take a lot of time. I would love to run before work or take a walk afterward, but my kids are home for the first and last hours of my workday, and they are usually clamoring for food or attention. It’s still possible to build in transitional rituals even when you have demands on your time.

A colleague of mine performs a 10-minute mindfulness exercise before opening his laptop for the day. I make a cup of chai from scratch. Granted, I make chai daily, but on work days I make my tea and drink it while I skim email and check my calendar. I also feed Mike, my Betta fish, at the beginning and end of my work day. Neither of these is as cool as a mindfulness exercise, but they work for me.

You don’t need to invent exotic rituals. Feeding Mike isn’t my idea of a transcendent experience. However, you can take mundane activities and perform them in a certain order to help your mind shift gears.

Dress for work

Working remotely means never (or hardly ever) having to wear uncomfortable business clothes. Depending on how often you interact face to face with clients and colleagues, and your company’s prevailing culture, you can wear anything you want. The Internet is full of stories about working in your pajamas. I loved ditching the high heels. If I never see another pair of those torture devices, it will be too soon.

I will still recommend you get dressed for work. Remote workers do not have the same physical separation between their place of employment and their place of rest. Dressing for work can be one of the easiest ways to transition from home life to work life. One of my colleagues has a suit jacket made of T-shirt material. She slips it on when she is in work mode. I own three collared, button down work shirts. Putting them on signals that I’m going to work. At the end of the day I change into a t-shirt to show I’ve “left” work. I’m like Mr. Rogers in reverse.

Build a soundtrack

Many of us have songs we associate with different memories or feelings. Use this to your advantage and create a soundtrack to transition into or out of work.

I discovered this tip by accident. I’m a runner. My running playlist of a dozen songs worked just fine until I trained for a 10k. I was out 3–4 days a week, listening to the same songs over and over and over again. The result is that I can’t listen to any Lady Gaga or the song ‘Titanium’ without experiencing a nearly uncontrollable desire to run. On the days I don’t want to run, I turn on these songs and I’m practically propelled out the door.

You can use this same strategy to get into your work groove – or to pull you out of work if you have a tough time turning it off. This strategy takes time. If you pair the same playlist with leaving work, your mind will eventually shift gears when those songs play. As a bonus, you can tell your partner or children that until they hear James Brown, you’re still at work.

Carve out a distinct work space

One of the easiest ways to compartmentalize your job is to keep it in a separate home office. If you can afford this option, take advantage of it. I have spent my entire professional life in some of the least affordable places to live in the world. My office is usually in my bedroom.

Fortunately creating a distinct workspace has more to do with your creativity than it does with actual walls. A physical office is great, but keep in mind that those walls won’t save you from getting sucked back into work all by themselves.

How to build an office when you don’t have a separate room

You can still create a physical office even if you don’t have a separate room. Buy a desk if you can and do most of your work there. A folding screen can wall you off from the rest of your home. Screens are also handy for hiding your bedroom when you are on video calls. A few office specific decorations can create the outlines of a separate work space. Mike the beta fish lives in a tank on my desk. My running medals hang on the holder I’ve attached to the wall behind me. Even putting a cup of pens and a photo of your family on your kitchen table/desk can help you distinguish between work time and off-the-clock time.

Create a healthy distance

Ideally, you would have a work computer and a personal computer, a work phone and a personal phone, and the two would only mix when you want them to. People who commute to a physical office also struggle with this sort of separation. However, the issue is magnified for remote workers, who live in their office. You don’t have to take work home – you’re already there.

Successful remote workers think about the amount of purely personal time they need to thrive and take steps to wall off that time. Some people require more distance than others. Some might want to take calls during dinner so they can catch an issue in its early stages. Others need a “no work zone” so they can return to work fully charged. Only you can decide if there is enough distance between your job and your personal life. Are your choices harming your relationships or health? If not, then this likely isn’t a problem for you. It’s only a problem if you need time to unplug and work plugs you back in.

Some companies or industries expect you to be available at all hours. Unless you are a first responder or on call, you can usually ignore a message for a set amount of time, or let the person know you’re in the middle of dinner and will look at whatever it is later. Your strategy may need to vary person by person. In these types of work environments, it pays to figure out exactly how long you can unplug before there are consequences you can’t live with.

Many remote employees can choose to turn off work outside of work hours. We don’t because we see that notification on our screen and we think “I’ll just answer that really quickly so I don’t have it hanging over my head tomorrow” and next thing you know it’s two hours later and you’ve missed the meetup with your run group. Again. Or maybe that’s just me.

I used to think I would have a better blend of work and life if my company gave me a work phone that I could shove into a drawer. As a veteran remote worker, I now know that I am only as balanced as my notification settings. I set my company Slack to “do not disturb” between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. on my laptop. I don’t have Slack on my phone at all unless I’m working outside my home. My company laptop gets turned off at the end of the day and I use my iPad or iPhone to surf the web. Few work people have my personal cell number. I do not forward my work email to my phone.

This doesn’t mean that I never work after hours. The beauty of a remote job is that you can put in a few hours late in the evening or early in the morning and then use the daylight hours to go do something else. The goal is to make working after hours just hard enough that doing so becomes a conscious decision.

Use your words

Once you build your commute and set up your mental barriers between work and home, talk as if there is a physical distance between you and your job. In the morning I grab my cup of chai, announce I’m going to work and say goodbye to my family. Everyone says goodbye back even though I’m just moving into the next room. This might not work for you if you live alone. Adapt it to fit your situation. Tell colleagues you are away from your desk even if you can see your desk from the dinner table. The more you talk about work as something you have to go to or come back from, the easier it is to turn on and off.

Remote jobs offer an amazing opportunity to work productively and do more of the things you love. Remote jobs can also take over your life. Take steps to develop a healthy distance between work and home. If you do, you’ll develop a work life blend that pushes you closer to your work-life goals.

By Teresa Douglas (MBA ’14), author of the book “Secrets of the Remote Workforce: By Employees, For Employees”