When Linda Miriam began working from home about six years ago, everything was fine at first. She was productive during the day and able to disconnect from her job and enjoy time with her husband, Avigdor Levi, when he came home from the office.
But when they launched their own business three years later, Avigdor began working from home, too — and their work soon took over their lives. “There was so much to figure out in the beginning,” Linda recalls, “and it just consumed us.”
Even after they’d mastered the details of their new venture, the pattern of overwork continued. “We’d bring our laptops to the dinner table; we’d discuss work as we were getting ready for sleep, and even after we were in bed. Work was all we talked about and all we did.”
Eventually, they both realized that they needed firmer boundaries around their work lives for their home lives to really flourish. “We decided that it would take a conscious effort,” Linda explains. “We had to really set our minds to having more of a life outside of work.”
They banned laptops and phones during meals, and they set up defined work spaces: Avigdor works in the den; Linda operates in the living room. They created actual stations, with keyboards and mouse pads, so they are no longer tempted to carry their laptops from room to room as they had done before.
And at the end of every workday, they head outside to take a walk, creating another mental boundary between work and leisure time. Living in Venice Beach, Calif., where they can enjoy the sunset over the surf, offers plenty of motivation for an evening stroll. “We help each other,” Linda says. “If I want to keep working, my husband will remind me that we want to catch the sunset before it’s too late.”
These changes have rekindled dimensions of their relationship that had fallen away because of all-consuming work. “Intimacy and sharing, and being able to talk about things we really care about — all of that has come back,” Linda says. “And it’s been really nice.”
People who commute to the office may also recognize this struggle. Many of us are always only a swipe away from addressing some task at any time of day because of our smartphones. This can make it difficult to disconnect from our jobs after hours, which can damage our own well-being and that of our loved ones.
But all is not lost. By setting clear boundaries between work time and personal time, we can maintain thriving careers and close relationships with family and friends.
Before you even leave the office, there are things you can do to nurture your real-life relationships. One of them involves notifying your boss and colleagues about your intent to disconnect.
“The first way to manage expectations is to let people know when you’re not available,” explains Melissa Green, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who leads workshops on work–life balance in Cartersville, Ga. “You could give a designated time — from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., for example. Or you could just say, ‘After work hours, I won’t be available to respond to messages. I will respond to all messages at the beginning of the next business day.’”
If simply saying no to an always-available work schedule is too difficult, you can offer a more specific explanation: Perhaps you need to pick up your child from school, or you have plans to spend time with family or friends.
You can also set an out-of-office reply ahead of time. By scheduling your work-free hours in your shared digital calendar, you’ll remind your colleagues and yourself that you’re on personal time.
Setting limits can be particularly difficult for people-pleasers or perfectionists. If that’s the case, ask yourself to imagine the worst-possible scenario: It’s unlikely that you’ll be fired because you didn’t answer an after-hours email. Most of these tasks, after all, can wait until morning, when you’ll return to work refreshed and focused.
If you’re still struggling to set boundaries with your boss, it might be worth talking to a professional to get to the heart of the matter.
Be Mindful of Transitions
Five transition points during the day offer particularly valuable opportunities for connection, especially for parents and their children. Julie Morgenstern, best-selling author of Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You, recommends relatively brief, but focused, interaction with your kids when they wake up in the morning, when you send them off to school or you leave the house, when you reunite at the end of the workday, at dinnertime, and at bedtime.
Because children thrive on short bursts of attention, Morgenstern says that “between five and 20 minutes of truly undivided attention delivered consistently — not big blocks of time delivered occasionally — is best.”
Use each of the five connection points to “fully enter their world,” she explains. “Get on their level, ask questions like ‘Hey, how did you sleep last night? Did you have any dreams? What’s on your plate today? What are you excited about? What are you worried about? What’s happening today?’”
She also stresses the importance of connecting with your loved ones as soon as you get home; then you can move on to the business of life — whether that involves preparing for dinner or watching television together.
Focus on Accomplishments
Just as Linda and Avigdor end their workday with a walk to the beach, it’s a good idea to incorporate some kind of closure into your day. Some people park their devices by the front door; others, like Sherrie Campbell, PhD, author of Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life, wind down in the evening by working out.
A regular movement practice can serve as a valuable transition from the task-focused headspace of your work into the rest of your evening — and the time to yourself can help calm your mind after a busy day.
Morgenstern suggests mentally tallying accomplishments at the end of the workday. “If you start many things and finish none, then it’s hard to turn work off,” she explains. “But if you think about what you completed, it’s easier to stop working, to wrap it in a bow.”
When Employees Define a Company’s Culture
Some companies are recognizing that an always-on culture diminishes their employees’ connections to loved ones, which can result in high turnover rates. So they’re working to change things.
Chris Tuff, partner at the advertising agency 22squared and author of The Millennial Whisperer, says his agency offers every employee five paid days off every year to volunteer in the community. After three years with the company, employees can give one month of their time, all expenses paid, to a nonprofit anywhere in the world. “Our philosophy is that we want to give rise to change,” Tuff explains.
These bold policies reflect the agency’s commitment to employee development and community well-being, which are at the core of their culture. “It’s quite the opposite from when I first got into the workplace in 2003,” he says. “People took pride in answering emails at 3, 4, 5 in the morning. We’re starting to come full circle from that.”
Tuff often hears from his employees that 22squared’s culture is a major factor in their choice to work there, and he’s witnessed the results of the agency’s policies in the staff’s overall happiness and enthusiasm for their work.
They’re also empowered to define the culture on their own terms. “Oftentimes, a corporation’s culture is shoved down people’s throats rather than letting the employees craft it themselves,” Tuff notes. “If you want a definition of our company’s values, go to Instagram and look at the hashtag #22Culture. Every single one of those photos loosely defines what we’re all about.” Indeed, there are some 4,000 posts with that hashtag showing scenes that range from volunteer sites to happy hours.
Smaller practices add up, too, which is why Tuff designates some meetings as device-free to encourage a focused, collaborative environment. “It starts at the top, whether it be taking vacation or turning off your phone,” he says. “Practice what you preach in terms of exhibiting work–life balance.”
This originally appeared as “Connecting at Home” in the November 2019 issue of Experience Life.