A couple of years ago, I spent a fascinating day with a group of influencers at a wellbeing event. I spoke with the bloggers and vloggers who have successfully created huge personal brands by sharing reams of online content and got a real sense of how much their work pervades all aspects of their lives. Most of them talked about how hard it was to switch off from work because it was unclear where work finished and other parts of life began.
While having a prolific social media presence blurs the work/life distinction more than many jobs, millions of people now have to manage their boundaries more carefully as they work from home. Commuting to work, whether a stroll down the road or an hour by train, provides a book end to the start and end of the official working day (even though some tasks might slip into travel or home time). When we’re working from home, there can be a huge pull to work longer and harder, continually popping back into emails, Slack or other group chats to check for updates.
In a haze of distraction, screens can feel like a solution to restlessness when often they’re a key perpetrator. And although clocking up the extra hours each week can make us feel more productive in the shorter term, it isn’t sustainable in the longer run as our brains need downtime to simply rest and digest.
In a haze of distraction, screens can feel like a solution to restlessness when often they’re a key perpetrator.
Downtime renews the brain’s reserves of attention and motivation, galvanises creativity and productivity, and is a vital ingredient to achieving our best performance. As this Scientific American article explains, “It is also an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.” Ultimately, it’s key to performing well.
So how can we create clearer boundaries and claim back time for other important areas of our life? Here are some ideas to explore:
- Reframe your former commuting time and fill at least some of it with an activity that gives you fuel for the day e.g. if you used to spend an hour on the train, go for a run or brisk walk – or spend time meditating or reading – before you sit down to work.
- Aim for consistency rather than duration e.g. rather than going for a 60-minute walk once a week aim for a minimum of 10-15 minutes a day as this increases the likelihood that you will form a new habit and stick to it over the longer term (and once you’ve tricked your brain into committing to the 10 minutes, you’re likely to walk for longer once you’re actually out).
- Get out in nature as much as possible. The benefits of being in green areas has been well-documented, but recent research on ‘blue space’ reveals that being near water can boost mood and wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be a stroll along the coast either as time spent near lakes, rivers and even fountains has been found to be beneficial.
- Work out what time you would ideally like to finish for the day and work backwards to ensure you allow enough time for finishing off tasks and replying to emails.
- Create a marker and routine for the end of the day. Tidy up papers and put your laptop away so it’s out of sight. This creates more headspace to focus on other activities and people and prevents you from being pulled back to your work.
- Give yourself true breaks and disconnect completely, including from emails and social media to give your brain a chance to truly rest and digest.
- Go easy on yourself. If your boundaries slip for a day or two, take note of the cause and pick it up again the next day. Notice any trends and barriers that prevent you from keeping boundaries in check and explore how these can be overcome e.g. by reshaping tasks or having conversations with those who could support you.
- Set goals for your personal life and focus on what you’re gaining from having clearer lines between work and the rest of life e.g. do you want to be able to run 10K, learn how to DJ or write a series of short stories? How will this satisfy your values, give you energy and/or tap into something that’s been missing from your life?
- Communicate what you need from others as they’re not mind-readers. Managers and colleagues can’t always be expected to know, especially without the visual cues that face to face communication allows.
- Regularly review what works and what doesn’t. This may change over time.
Of course, there will be times when it’s much harder to maintain healthy boundaries, either due to peaks in workload or juggling other responsibilities for example. Some people are also more comfortable than others with having more time for work and less for other aspects of their life. However, being aware of our own thresholds, the consequences of slippages and what we may not be doing because of work helps to make sure we manage the dynamics of our day in a way that works best for us.
Read more about Supporting the Wellbeing of Remote Workers in this article I wrote on behalf of The Wellbeing Project for The Society of Occupational Medicine. To find out how coaching can help you manage your boundaries more effectively, get in touch at [email protected]