by Jason Fitzpatrick
Historically work was something you did in one location, with a set of tools, and when you left that location, you simply couldn’t work anymore. Doctors practiced in their offices, smithies labored in their foundries, accountants tended their ledgers until the close of the day, and so on. Innovations in technology and a broad shift towards information work have made it increasingly difficult to draw a clean line between work and leisure. Office workers of yesteryear might have been inclined to check in on things at the office or do a little work on early Sunday morning, but it wasn’t feasible unless they drove back into the office. Today, however, any office worker with a BlackBerry tether can tell you: it can feel downright impossible to feel like you’re ever really away from work.
The Case for Separating Work from Play
If you have a job you love so much that you leap out of bed every morning with a song in your heart, you’re a lucky person. Realistically, most people need a break from their work and an identity beyond John Q. Smith, System Analyst. Even the most dedicated worker needs a life outside of work no matter how much they enjoy it.
While there are a 1,001 ways to separate your work from your home and leisure activities, all of the tricks amount to nothing more than physical sleight of hand if you’re not going to commit to the idea. What idea? The belief that you deserve time free from the intrusions of the company you work for, of your boss’ demands, of the pressure of deadlines, and all the other sources of stress that come with being a 21st century information worker. This project, separating work and play, isn’t just about leisure. It’s also about an understanding that when you give your personal and leisure time 100% of your attention, it recharges you and allows you to give 100% to your work when you return to it.
Sketch Out Your Boundary Battle Plan
Is your workload “leaking” uncontrollably into your personal life with late nights and lost weekends? Have you slowly given up on separating blocks of time into work and fun time? Do you resent your work and the various digital tethers you’re attached to it by? Do you schedule personal time and make it a priority to reconnect with friends, hobbies, and simple relaxation?
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably unhappy with the answer to at least one of the questions above. I can’t tell you what your boundaries need to be, and not every suggestion below will fit your needs. Evaluate your options and pick what works best for you. The more time you spend assessing what your current workflow looks like, the easier it is to decide which of the following tips and techniques are best suited for you. 9-to-5 with the laptop slammed closed at 5 on the dot works for some people, while others prefer working in 2 hour increments throughout the day in their home office. Your work, your peak productive windows, and the flexibility of your employer factor in strongly in your decisions here.
Compartmentalizing Your Computing Time
Most of us log some serious time on computers. Computers at work, computers at home, computers in our satchels for hammering away at projects in coffee shops—we spend an enormous amount of time on them. The danger here is how easy it is to slip between work and play.
If you were an office worker in 1960, the chances you’d just happen to find something endlessly entertaining and novel in your office were next to zero. Now the same computer you use to log on to the company intranet and track your projects is the same one that can lend itself to endless browsing on Reddit. Cordoning off your work time from your goofing off time is important to enjoying them both to the fullest. Let’s look at some simple ways you can achieve separation between the two.
Separate User Accounts: One of the quickest and easiest ways to establish separation between your work and play is to create multiple user accounts. Every operating system supports multiple account creation. It takes very little disk space to create multiple accounts—for example, one for work, one for personal projects, one for gaming—and it’s easy to do on Windows 7, Mac OS X, and Ubuntu Linux.
Installing Virtual Machines: Instead of switching between entire user accounts you can simply boot up a virtual machine within your current operating system. This technique won’t work for everyone, but it provides the mental effect of booting down your work machine without actually giving up access to your computer. Set up a virtual machine just for work and shut it down when you’re not explicitly working. Our beginner’s guide to creating virtual machines and our guide to running Windows, Mac, and Linux side by side is a good place to get started.
Virtual Desktops: Virtual desktops are a great middle-ground solution for fostering focus. Virtual desktops, for the unfamiliar, essentially clone your desktop so that you can switch between desktops like you switch between application windows. You can set up one desktop for communication like email and company instant messaging, one for data entry and manipulation, and another for your break time with games and social networks open. Most virtual desktop apps let you customize workspaces so you can even change the wallpaper of the virtual desktops to reflect the focus of the space. Check out these five most popular virtual desktop apps for excellent solutions for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
Cutting the Cord on Ceaseless Working
So far we’ve talked about assessing what you want out of new work boundaries and how to compartmentalize your computer work; now let’s consider your physical space and the ubiquitous symbol of corporate servitude, the BlackBerry (and other smartphones).
Set a Cut Off Time: Unless your job is somehow inextricably tied to national security, you’ve got to pick a cut off time to your work. At some point during the day, the email client has to close, the work phone has to be turned off, and something more than work has to command your attention. It’s OK to totally unplug. Unless you happen to be the only on-call heart surgeon in Anchorage, everything will probably go smoothly without your constant presence.
Shut The Door: If you work from home, it’s tough to shut off the work side of your brain since the place you work is the same as the place you play. Try to create the experiences as much as possible. If you have a whole room as a home office, practice shutting down at the end of the work day like you would if you were going home, complete with closing the door and letting go of your work-focused energy. Even if you don’t have an office you can close the door on, establish some ritual for closing the work day—even if it’s only booting out of your work OS and into your personal OS in a virtual machine.
Enlist Others Support: Your friends and family will likely be thrilled to hear you’re trying hard to enjoy more time with them and stress less about work. Tell your spouse, your kids, your roommate—whoever—about your plans to reorganize your time. They may have gotten as used to the constant email checking and distracted attention as you have. Once they’re aware that you’re trying to kick the BlackBerry habit, they’ll be quick to point out when you’re slipping back into old habits. It might be annoying the first time you’re called out sneaking a peek at email after dinner, but it’s for the best.
Now that you’ve had a chance to consider a few of our suggestions for establishing boundaries between your work and play, it’s time for you to share your favorite methods for fencing off your work from your personal life, in the comments.