How to set better work-life boundaries while working from home

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It’s been almost two years since some people have stepped foot in an office, swapping their cubicles for bedroom desks and kitchen counters as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the United States.

There are countless benefits of remote working for employees. But you lose the physical separation of your work and personal life that you get when commuting to an office, and a remote environment has pushed some employees to work longer hours.

Korn Ferry polled about 500 professionals in November and 69% said their boss expects them to respond to calls and emails outside of their regular hours, and 76% said the expectation to return after-hours messages has increased since the crisis began.

“The joke is not that we’re working from home, but we’re living at work,” Anna Dearmon Kornick, a time management coach and head of community at Clockwise, an online calendar platform, tells CNBC Make It. “People are exhausted, and it’s hard to be productive when things are constantly changing with the pandemic.”

Here are a few strategies you can adopt into your daily routine that will help you stay focused and maintain balance while working from home:

Practice saying ‘no’

If you find yourself working later and later in the evening to finish all the work your co-workers or managers are assigning, it might be time to turn people down. Saying “no” to a colleague or boss can be intimidating – but it’s a valuable practice to set healthy boundaries and be a more effective employee.

Before having a conversation with your boss, rank your job responsibilities and projects from most to least valuable, based on what will have the greatest impact on your team.

“Then, you can approach your boss and tell them, ‘I could take this on, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I would rather spend my time on projects that I know are going to be most valuable for the team – so this would have to go on the back burner, and I can get to it at a later date,'” Moore suggests.

If a co-worker is asking for help, be honest and tell them you don’t have the bandwidth, Moore says, but offer to find someone else to work with them or ask your manager about re-assigning priorities so all important, time -sensitive work gets done.

You should also feel empowered to say “no” if a meeting – unless it’s critical – conflicts with your self-care routine. “Don’t lose the discipline of doing the things that keep you sane, whether it’s spending an hour at the gym in the morning or watching Netflix during your lunch break,” Moore says. “Whatever it is, make time for it and honor that break to regroup.”

Create a ‘start-up’ and ‘shut-down’ routine

Television host Fred Rogers offers one of the simplest strategies for maintaining a healthy work-life balance at home on his show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”: When he returns home from work, Rogers switches his outside jacket for a cozy red sweater before settling into his living room, Kornick points out.

Kornick calls this a “shut-down routine,” or an action that helps shift your mental state into being at home and done with work. It can be tempting to catch up on emails after if you have free time, but having a routine is important for staving off burnout.

“Your routine can be as simple as reviewing your calendar, updating your to-do list, and shutting down your laptop,” she says. “Repeating these actions at the end of each work day will trigger a mindset shift that tells your brain it’s time to rest.”

It can be just as challenging to start working when your commute is walking from your bedroom to your desk – or not leaving your bed at all. “Traveling to the office gave us a clear transition and time to switch to ‘work mode,'” Kornick says.

She recommends having a “start-up” routine before work as well to help you feel energized for the day ahead. It can include reading the news, drinking a cup of coffee, stretching or just powering on your laptop – whatever actions help you feel ready to tackle work.

Stick to a schedule

There are countless distractions that can pull at your attention while working from home: chores that could be done between meetings, the TV, roommates, pets and children, to name a few.

“It can be incredibly difficult to have the self-discipline to get work done with all of these diversions in your face,” Martin Moore, a leadership performance expert, says.

Moore recommends using a time-tracking app like Clockify or TimeCamp to help you focus on different work tasks and find your most productive hours. You can block out specific times for responding to emails, taking breaks and doing purposeful, distraction-free work.

“At the end of every week or month, you can look back and see how you spent your days and whether it was the most productive, valuable use of your time,” Moore says. “Then you can start to really plan your work day not just around the tasks that need to get done, but your productivity patterns as well.”

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