It’s difficult to keep work out of my personal life while being remote

My first job while being remote was honestly amazing, even though I had a terrible secret. I would usually wake up at 10 or 11am, check in on Skype with my team (way before Slack…) and then binge watch videos on Youtube or play World of Warcraft. Since “office hours” were from 10am to 5pm, I had to be available, but I honestly did no work during those hours. I’d just be online, in a sort of work/leisure time limbo.

Inspiration hit at 9 or 10pm. I’d get to work and code until 4-5 am, then rinse and repeat. Nighttime was always the easiest time of my day where I could focus. No one online to interrupt, I was already tired from playing all day, and it seemed like my head was in a state where code would just come with ease.

For a while it worked, but then it became frustrating that I’d be in a dungeon and someone at work pinged me to know the status on X. I’d have to explain that I was working on it and getting it done. Of course that wasn’t strictly true, but it was close enough. I was always responsible and got my work done on time; I’d just do it on my own time, not during “business hours”.

Even though I was delivering my work on time, I was slowly erasing the boundaries between work and my leisure time. There was no “before” work or “after” work, there was just me watching Jon and Danny’s scenes and Xcode silently judging me from my second monitor.

You need to enjoy your personal time without work getting in the way

Even though most companies don’t fully embrace remote and will ask people to have “overlap hours” with their peers – a half-measure – the real issue was that I was setting no boundaries.

Now, setting boundaries is an extremely ethereal concept. I may as well be saying “Eat healthy and exercise”. If you’ve followed my blog, or my mailing list, or my Twitter you know that I hate generic advice. I hate reading an article and going “that’s exactly how I feel” then reading “the answer is don’t work and watch youtube at the same time”. No shit, Sherlock.

In order to set boundaries, you need to understand that work may be both a physical place and a mental place. Get into the office and your brain understands that you’re in a setting where you need to work. Go back home and you can relax because you’re not logged into your work Slack. If you’re always working and relaxing in the same spot, it’s difficult for your brain to understand what it should be focusing on.

How to set boundaries

The goal then is to help you brain distinguish between work and leisure using two levers: physical location and mental location.

For your physical place, if you have a laptop, it may be possible for you to have a “working” place. If you have an extra table where you can sit and work, that’s a good start. It doesn’t even need to be in another room. The key is that you only sit there when you’re going to work.

If you work using a desktop, it’s harder, but you can still make it feel different. I usually end up rubber-duck debugging, so my rubber duck is only at my desk when I’m working. Sometimes I will also write down “I’m working until X:XX” in a post-it and then put it on my monitor. If you get distracted, look at that post-it and remind yourself that you’re working.

For your mental place, use habits to your advantage. A concrete example, when I’m about to begin working, I put on my headphones and fire up my “work” music. Right now it’s Doctor Who music, but it can vary between sessions. The point is to choose a style of music that you wouldn’t normally associate with your leisure time. Don’t choose a style with lyrics, unless it’s a language you don’t understand.

Now, your brain is smart and sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you try, it will still think it’s leisure time. In those cases, I also set SelfControl, in order to block everything that may tempt me. Then, I sit in the computer. It’ll be excruciating because I just don’t want to work, but I can’t watch Youtube, I can’t play games, I can’t do anything else since I’ve blocked the web. After 5-10 minutes, I usually suck it up and work just to pass time.

Make your workplace your own

It’s completely normal for your brain to feel confused about work and leisure if you’re always in the same spot. Always remember, though, you’re in control. You’re the only one responsible for the quality of your work and the quality of your free time.

If you liked this article, please consider subscribing! I write a weekly newsletter with a 15-minute coding exercise, and additional sections like interviews from members of our community.