work balance
Photo: Ann Cutting
The time has come to write. I feel this on an almost cellular level. Why? Because I'm sitting in my writing chair, wearing my writing glasses, chewing my writing gum. Now, I could sit in this chair, wear these glasses, and chew this gum while knitting tea cozies, juggling jelly beans, and husking corn (just not at the same time). But I wouldn't. See, I write at home, and I've learned the hard way that unless I strictly divide my writing time from everything else, my work bleeds into my home life. Then I can never relax, because, just like an ax murderer in a horror movie, my work is always lurking.

These days almost all of us work at home to some extent. Maybe you spend evenings brooding over spreadsheets from the office. Maybe you're in the house all day doing the hardest work imaginable: caring for the young, the old, or the ill. Or maybe, like me, you have a job—sort of—but no official physical workplace. All of which is to say that when I talk about "home" versus "work," I mean the activities that replenish your energy versus the ones that drain it. In an age when bleed-through is the new normal, it's more crucial than ever to separate the two. Here are some strategies that help me.

1. Establish a replenishing inner "state of home."

Some people spend years in an office cubicle without ever feeling the energetic involvement of real work; others do brilliant, inspired work without ever leaving their bed. This is because both work and home are first and foremost states of mind. So to begin separating your work life and home life, we'll concentrate on creating a mental "state of home" inside your head.

To do this, focus on memories that feel relaxing, nourishing, replenishing—in a word, homey. Remember baking with your grandmother, or talking with your sister, or snuggling in bed with a loved one (fabulous sex is an excellent way to feel at home, as is cuddling with your beloved collie—just not at the same time).

If you don't have many homey memories, your mental state of home may feel tepid at first. Persist! Remember the most comforting times and places you can: the branches of the tall tree where bullies couldn't reach you, Uncle Joe's bomb shelter, the warmest corner of the prison yard. (Ideally, you're looking for a sense of joyful replenishment, but happy relaxation is nearly as good, pleasant neutrality will do, familiar boredom is better than nothing, and defensible concealment—well, you get the idea.)

Once you come up with three memories that qualify, hold in mind the feelings they bring, while silently repeating, "Home. Home. Home."

2. Establish a productive inner "state of work."

If you're lucky, you do the kind of work that sparks your creativity and makes you want to meet its challenges. For me that work is writing: Although I find it hellishly hard, it's the first thing I turn to when I need to express myself or understand the world. I love its very difficulty.

Most of my clients, however, are work Nazis. They think they should force themselves to do things they loathe. If this is your mental "state of work," it's also the way you'll feel about your job, and it will follow you home—likely in the form of depression or rage. You absolutely must create a mental work state more like what psychologists call flow, the total absorption that comes from doing something that interests you at the upper edge of your ability level.

Even if your current job feels more like imprisonment than flow, you can still create a productive mental work state. Start by remembering any kind of effort that absorbed you enough to make time disappear. If after racking your brain nothing comes to mind, periods of interested problem solving will do nearly as well, and moments of productive effort will suffice in a pinch. Tedious repetition is as low as you want to go here (if your job is so awful that it doesn't yield even an hour of tolerable slog, it's time to hire a life coach). Now focus on the three best work activities you can remember, smoosh them together in your head, and silently repeat, "Work. Work. Work."

Next: Keep your work and home lives healthy and pristine


Next Story