Let’s start with the workplace: as I said earlier, this is a place where the private life usually turns low-priority and we are supposed to focus on our job, our tasks, our collaboration with colleagues and generally be engaged in activities that lead to the outcomes we are paid to deliver, be it as employees or as self-employed agents for our customers. In an ideal world we could fully focus on work, but in the real world, most of us will – at some point or other – be affected by our private lives to a point where the quality of our work suffers.
That could simply be a loved one calling all the time (which in itself is certainly not unwelcome) and that can be a huge distraction. I’ve had colleagues who spent hours every day talking to their teenage kids about things the kids could easily have figured out themselves, given the opportunity and total absence of the parent. It’s all too easy to pick up the phone and call mom or dad at work.
Talking from my own perspective from many years ago: I was told very clearly that calling them at work was for absolute emergencies – and that meant “water damage, fire, burglary, Armageddon” rather than “I can’t figure out how to do my homework” or “I want to go out this weekend with my friends”. Those things were the stuff of discussions in the evening, or weekends, and my parents were pretty clear that such calls would be highly inappropriate.
There is something to be said to keep it that way, but mobile phones have made it all too easy to accept those calls at work, and I do blame the parents rather than the kids for these interruptions. As an employer, I would discourage this behaviour in my workforce as it leads to lower productivity and more distractions.
That being said, the mind plays tricks on us as well: if a family situation is weighing on our thoughts, we cannot simply “put it to sleep until past 5pm” of course. Life can interfere at many levels, and after all we are human beings, not automatons. Still, it pays to make sure that focus on work is retained and the influence of private life is kept to a minimum.
Similarly, once we leave work, it should be second nature to switch away from the thought processes associated with our daily work life. Unfortunately, that has become pretty impossible these days, with emails still rattling in on our phones, bosses demanding 24/7 access to our services and our sense of duty to comply because we are afraid to lose our jobs if we don’t. Obviously, that will have a negative effect on our personal lives and will affect our behaviour in our free time. Stress, overworking, burnout and nervous breakdowns can be some of the results of this situation.
Again, it is partly up to us to make sure this interference does not take over our private lives. Yes: in some cases we need to be reachable for our superiors. But you could argue that being paid for a job does not involve you being available at all hours in your free time. If your contract doesn’t state that fact, you would be perfectly in your rights to refuse! There is something to be said for leniency, though. Sometimes, that’s how business goes. Often, however, it’s bad planning or the fact that your boss suddenly had a change of opinion. Honestly, it can’t be your responsibility to fix things in those cases.
There are good reasons to keep work and private life separate: you need time off work to recuperate and be the best employee you can possibly be. How can anyone expect that to happen if they don’t give you time to put your mind at rest?
That brings us to ways to achieve that and make the separation of the two easier.
One thing that works wonders is to have what I call a ‘serenity buffer’ between work and free time, and the other way around. That could be a physical/geographical distance, or a time period between the two spheres of your work and private life. Commuting, as annoying as it can be, could actually turn out to be useful if you take that time and allow yourself to detach from one area and arrive in the other. If you drive to and from, why not spend that time listening to an audio book or a podcast to settle your mind and distract yourself from work/home thoughts? If you commute on public transport, you could to the same, or read, or make an effort to engage with fellow travellers Oftentimes you’ll travel with the same people every day: have you ever considered saying hello or striking up a conversation? I have made several friends over the years this way, some even during the 6 stops on the tram from the station to my workplace!
If you are so inclined, you could even do guided meditations from your phone or player. There are loads of them available on youtube, and once you have found the ones that work for you, why not make this part of a daily meditation practice. It will most certainly calm your mind and take your thoughts elsewhere.
The main point of these exercises is to help you create a clear border between work and free time. Once that border is in place, it’s enough to put your foot down when the two areas intersect in some way (kids calling at work, boss sending emails during down times) and learning to manage them so that the interference remains minimal.
Many people find this separation to be an absolute requirement for their physical and mental health as it helps put work into perspective, and to cherish the time off much more because there is less of a chance of sudden interruptions, once the parameters have been clarified to both your family and your boss. In my case, my boss was pleased to hear that I had set up those boundaries, and – after an adjustment period – rarely made use of his ‘emergency’ card to get in touch outside of work hours. He appreciated me being flexible on occasion, but he also accepted when flexibility was not an option because he had understood that he was asking for a favour rather than taking my work for granted.
Flexibility is a given in those situations, of course. But there is value in having uninterrupted periods of free time when we can allow the brain to not busy itself with work. Ultimately, our work will benefit from a fresh mind after a break, as will our private life if we don’t carry work thoughts with us all the time. And if we apply similarly rigorous rules on the private life encroaching onto our work life, there will be positive effects there as well.
These thoughts apply to working from a place that is NOT your home, and slightly different rules will apply to working from your home office, of course. Let’s look at that subject in the next blog post.
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Some pertinent ideas from the 'old office dog' who has seen it all, to help clear away the mess in your office.
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My name is Tilo Flache and it is my mission to help my clients organise and declutter their work spaces.