Working From Home: Separating Your Personal and Work Life

With the recent surge in working from home (WFH), I wanted to take some time to share some lessons, tips, and experiences about WFH. I’m not naive enough to believe that I have all of the answers, especially amid school closings and the million other unique factors brought about by COVID-19, but there are many lessons that I have learned over the last 8 or so years working remotely that I believe will still be helpful.

To get started, I think it is worth stating very clearly that working from home is not the same as working from an office. Your day-to-day work is likely not going to change drastically, but many other aspects of your life are going to change. The goal of this series of posts is to discuss those differences so that you can really take advantage of the positive changes and can mitigate issues with the less helpful changes.

To start, I want to dive into separating your work and personal life as this is what I consider to be the most crucial element to get right. Keep in mind that not all of this will work if you suddenly have kids staying home from school or elderly you need to take care of, but there are still many pieces of advice that will help you out.

The two extremes

There are basically two extreme ends of the spectrum that we want to avoid when working from home:

  1. Not getting any work done.
  2. Letting work overtake your personal life.

The first - not getting any work done - is a pretty easy trap to fall into when working from home infrequently or when new to WFH. I suspect it will also be the biggest challenge for families with kids or elderly to take care of. It usually starts with something simple - like taking a kid to a doctor appointment - and gradually one thing turns into another; after the doctor appointment you need to run to the pharmacy to pickup a prescription, and your pharmacy is in a grocery store so while you are there you go ahead and grab some food for dinner. Then when you get home you read the pills and realize your kid needs food with their pill, so you whip up lunch for everyone, and before you know it the clock reads 3pm and you don’t have anything to show for the day.

The second pitfall - working too much - can also sneak up on you. It might start with you answering a few quick emails during a family movie. Then before long you are doing quick code reviews at 7pm for a coworker, and that code review leads to a quick video chat to discuss alternative approaches, and the next thing you know your family is all in bed and you are still staring at your computer screen doing work. Or worse yet, you find yourself waking up one day, making coffee, getting on your computer, answering work emails, starting your next task, only to realize a few hours later that it is a Saturday.

Little by little your work and personal life are going to blend together so much that it will be hard to separate the two unless we actively take steps to avoid it.

Why doesn’t this happen with an office?

When working from an office, a natural separation between work and personal life is created whether we intend it or not. For most, this starts with a morning routine. Something like showering, getting dressed, making coffee, and commuting to an office, all of which help tell our mind to slowly transition into “work mode”. Even after we walk into an office there are a hundred little things that help remind us we should be working - coworkers talking about work-related tasks, a desk and chair that we only ever work from, and so much more.

If you don’t believe me on this one, just go ask someone who has quit smoking. Chances are part of that quitting process also involved avoiding places that trigger their desire to smoke. It is also why many will say it is easier to change habits like this upon taking a new job because your mind hasn’t started associating that new workplace with “smoke breaks”.

When we head home at the end of the day there are similar cues that tell your brain to get out of work mode. It might be as simple as leaving an office, commuting home, and sitting on the couch, but all of these little things help you to transition from your work life to your personal life.

In addition to the mental shift that occurs with an office, there are also social signals that we send to our friends, family, and coworkers when we go into an office. If your buddy Jim looks over and sees you at your desk, there is an extremely good chance you are able to answer a work-related question for him. Similarly, if your significant other knows you are at work, chances are they won’t be calling you about something trivial. They will try to avoid distracting you with anything that isn’t important.

Working from home removes nearly all of these cues

When you wake up in the morning, you won’t have the same pressure to shower or get dressed because you are working from home. You can shower at anytime throughout the day. When you head into the office, chances are you will be walking a few steps within your home, not taking a 15+ minute drive/walk/train. Even a desk will could be something that is shared, like a dining room table or a desk you also use to play video games.

Your coworkers will no longer have social cues telling them when you are and are not available. They won’t be able to look at your desk to see if you are available, so instead they will send you a message on Slack. And Slack, in all its glory, will promptly alert you of that message, even if you were spending time with your family. Or even if Slack doesn’t notify you, there is the pressure to keep caught up with every channel so you will find yourself checking it way more often now that people are using it at different times.

Even your family will get confused. When you come to the kitchen for lunch, are you available to talk, or are you mulling over a challenging problem in your head? Or when your partner needs to run to the store and the baby is sleeping - surely you can take the monitor and watch for her to wake up, right?

Because of all of this, it takes a conscious, planned effort to separate your personal and work life. And that is what we are going to tackle in this post.

The primary ways to separate your work and personal life

In my experience, there are a few key things to focus on when trying to separate your work and personal life:

  1. Figure out a routine that helps you transition into and out of work.
  2. Set boundaries and stick to them.
  3. Overcommunicate your current status.
  4. Be conscious of your time and schedule.
  5. Set achievable goals and be happy with them.

Below we will discuss each of these in more detail, including examples from both myself, peers on the Go Time Podcast, and others I have spoken with.

Establish routines

The first thing you need is a routine that helps you transition into and out of a good mental state for work. To start, I would probably stick to your normal routine as much as possible. That means even though you are working from home, I would still wake up, shower, get dressed in work clothes, and try to do everything like it is business as usual.

Some aspects will definitely need to change. For instance, if you normally commute to work, you won’t be doing that now. Or if you normally go out for coffee you might need to start brewing it at home. Just figure out what is the best fit for you and adjust accordingly.

While I do suggest that you start with a known routine, it is worth noting that many long-time WFH employees will drastically alter this routine over time, and you don’t have to wear work clothes to be productive.

Take myself for example - I almost never shower first thing in the morning and I never wear “work clothes”. As I write this very post I am sitting here in PJs and slippers. I do this because this is what I have found to be productive for me - I get up, put on PJs (I sleep in my underwear), start my coffee, feed my dogs, make breakfast, eat, and then I head to my office where I check my email for anything urgent and then proceed to start on my next big task for the day. I do shower daily, it just doesn’t happen to be in the morning right berfore I start work.

When I am done with work my routine is fairly simple. I shut off my office lights, close the office door, and walk upstairs where I try to immediately jump into a family activity like playing with my daughter, eating/prepraing dinner, or something similar.

Carmen Andoh mentioned on a recent recording of Go Time that her routine typically involves getting up very early in the morning - like 5am - so that she can immediately dive into deep-thought work without interruptions. My brother also did this when his kids were going to school so that he could get a big chunk of work done before taking a break to walk his kids to the school bus.

Mark Bates said that a big part of his morning routine is just having a rough deadline for when he needs to sit down and start answering emails in the morning, and that by making sure he does this regularly it is enough of a routine to keep himself productive. While this might seem incredibly simple, it is also worth noting that Mark has been WFH for around a decade which probably influences his ability to get into work mode without an office. He might also have more routine than he realizes because it is routine and not something we think about.

There aren’t really any set rules here, so you need to figure out what works for you, but I will advise you to put some conscious effort into this, as without a working routine it is really easy to never get into or out of a good mental state for work.

Set boundaries

Once you have a routine you need to establish boundaries for your work space and your work time. This is related to your routine, as it will help you keep these boundaries, but they aren’t exactly the same.

Spacial boundaries are pretty easy to understand. When you go to an office, you leave one building and go to another. At home we want to simulate this transition as much as possible. If you are lucky, that will mean going to a home office that you only use for work. Or maybe a spare bedroom that you can repurpose for work. If you are less fortunate, you might have to get creative. Some ideas I have heard:

Similarly, you can try to simulate this with your work equipment. One neat idea discussed on the Go Time podcast was to use multiple user accounts on your computer. That way you can sign into your work account to start the work day and sign out again to end the work day.

Next up is time boundaries; I know that working from home sounds like this magical scenario where you can work whenever you want, but the reality is this doesn’t work. Just like we need spacial boundaries, we also need time boundaries.

Pick a rough window of time that you plan to work and do everything in your power to stick to it. Turn off whatever personal notifications, distractions, etc that you can when working and try to simulate a work environment. Communicate this time window to your peers so they have a better idea of when you are available, and share it with your family so they know when you will be working or available.

For me this window is roughly 9am - 1pm, and every day I work I try to be at my desk working productively during these times. That doesn’t mean these are the only hours I work; it simply means that this 4 hour window is one where I am almost always available to anyone who may need me.

Note: I understand that this isn’t an easy time for everyone with COVID-19, schools closing, elderly possibly needing taken care of, and the many other unique situations. Despite all of that, I would still recommend you try to pick time windows where you consistently work, even if it is only 1-2 hours a day. Again, you can work more than this, but having a consistent window of time where peers can reach you will really help reduce notifications and distractions from your personal life.

This also means that you need to respect your time outside of work. In this age of phones, tablets, and laptops it is all too easy to keep working even when you are on the couch watching a movie. Resist the urge to do it! Even something as simple as answering work emails can lead to a poor work-life balance, and it isn’t fair to your family to ask them to respect your work time if you aren’t going to respect family time. I even try to go as far as leaving my laptop downstairs in my office so that I’m not tempting to grab it for anything work related.

Overcommunicate your status

In addition to setting clear boundaries, it can also help to find ways to overcommunicate your current status to coworkers and family. There are a number of ways to do this, and below are just a few ideas:

Set up a “Do Not Disturb” schedule.

Tools like Slack have ways to do this automatically, and they will often communicate it to your team members. If you haven’t already, set this up now.

Other tools have a “status” that you can set, which can often be used similarly. Sadly not all tools have this 😦

Wear headphones (or similar) to signify you are busy when moving about the house

Mark Bates said that he and his wife use earbuds to communicate when they are busy and aren’t available to talk, even if they happen to be in the kitchen making a sandwich.

Carmen Andoh mentioned that she used to wear a silly bug antenna headband to communicate with her kids when she wasn’t available for anything but an emergency.

Something mobile is best here, as you will often need a way to communicate that you are “still working” even when you are walking around the house doing things like using the bathroom, making food, or just stretching your legs.

Add signals at your workspace

If you are lucky enough to have an office space, consider closing the door when you are busy and opening it when you are more open to distractions (like when working through emails).

Other ideas include putting a curtain around your workspace, turning on a lamp or “do not disturb” sign, or really doing anything on your desk to signal that you are busy to your family.

Your workspace can also be a signal. While I do encourage you to pick a workspace and to try to stick to it, I will occasionally take a break from my office and answer emails. This is especially common when eating a meal, and I will sit at my dining room table with my laptop. When I do this, I do it knowing that my wife and my daughter might interrupt me and if that isn’t what I want, I need to move back down to my office.

Be conscious of time

At some point you will be enticed or need to do something instead of working. Maybe your mom will ask you to help her with some chores, or your friend will ask you to play a video game, or you need to run to the grocery store. You will convince yourself that it is okay with the, “I’ll make up the time later” excuse. And maybe you will, but you need to be conscious of how often you are doing this and how much time you need to make up before making that decision. Otherwise you might find yourself with 3 days of work to make up and no time to possibly make it up.

You also need to find a way to prevent yourself from going down a rabbit hole and wasting large chunks of time. At an office this is easier to avoid because there are regular distractions. People will get lunch together, people will ask you if you are going to the meeting, or someone will stop by your desk to ask a question. When WFH you can easily hyper-focus on a single task, sometimes one that isn’t really that important, and before you know it you have wasted two hours on something that really didn’t matter. A few ways to help avoid this are:

Set achievable goals, and be content with them

Nothing can kill your mojo quicker than setting unattainable goals. When you do this you will pressure yourself into working longer, trying to complete that goal so you feel productive for the day.

Rather than setting challenging goals, I like to set incredibly realistic goals for myself. Oftentimes these goals are ones that I can achieve in ~4 hours of productive time, so I am incredibly likely to complete my goals for the day.

By setting realistic goals, I am setting myself up for success. With my goals completed, I won’t feel obligated to overwork myself. That doesn’t mean I quit working as soon as my goals are complete, but it does mean that when I hit the end of my “work day” I can head back upstairs to my family without feeling any guilt.

It also means that if something personal comes up and I need to call it quits halfway through a day, I’m still very likely to have something to show for the day, and I won’t feel this unhealthy pressure to make up the missed time.

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Jon Calhoun

Jon Calhoun is a full stack web developer who teaches about Go, web development, algorithms, and anything programming. If you haven't already, you should totally check out his Go courses.

Previously, Jon worked at several statups including co-founding EasyPost, a shipping API used by several fortune 500 companies. Prior to that Jon worked at Google, competed at world finals in programming competitions, and has been programming since he was a child.

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This post is part of the series, Working From Home.

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