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March 17, 2017

Setting Boundaries When You’re Working From Home

Tom Mugridge

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It’s your time to shine: a leading worldwide broadcaster has arranged a live interview with you to pick your brains on your specialist subject. You're working from home, so you settle yourself down in your freshly tidied home office, launch Skype on your PC, take a deep breath… and in bursts your four-year-old daughter, who does a little dance for her audience of millions.

Hot on her heels comes your nine-month-old son in his baby stroller, and then your panicked wife, who whisks the reluctant kids away while desperately trying to keep out of sight. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry: five minutes ago you were a respected authority in your field; now you’ve gone viral with a string of memes to your name.


Like internet video sensation Robert E. Kelly, PhD, I’ve worked from home on and off for many years, but unlike the esteemed professor I’ve never had to explain my conduct to the Wall Street Journal or suffered an “epic fail” that trended on Twitter (at least not to my knowledge).

When I first began to work remotely, though, I endured something far worse: the tortuous process of learning to manage my own time, unsupervised and unobserved. Initially I thought, “Great, I’m working from home! No commute, nobody looking over my shoulder, no office politics. I’m going to get so much done!” In reality, I’d break for lunch after three and a half hours with the same untouched document open in front of me and a gnawing feeling of dread and shame. Meanwhile, my house had never been so clean, my cooking skills so well-honed, nor my email folders so well-organized. Procrastination, distraction and stress had taken hold.

I quickly realized that despite relishing my new-found freedom, I needed to embrace my inner boss, set some clear boundaries, and learn to manage myself if I was ever going to get anything done. I sought guidance from friends and former colleagues in similar situations, and found a way that worked for me. Here’s how I did it.

Create a Home Office Space You Can Actually Work In

First, I needed to separate my work life from my home life. Setting up my laptop at the kitchen table was never going to work: too many interruptions and snacking opportunities. In front of the TV? Not an option: I have a lifelong weakness for daytime soaps. I needed a dedicated workspace that I could leave behind at the end of the day, so I installed a desk and comfortable office chair in the spare bedroom, and made it an environment that I was happy to spend time in. I didn’t anticipate too many high-profile international live TV engagements so I didn’t bother with a lock on the door, but I set myself some realistic working hours and made sure everyone knew that I wasn’t to be disturbed during those times.

I also wanted to eliminate as many distractions as possible, so I also switched off social media on all my devices. If you find self-discipline even more difficult than I do, apps like Freedom can temporarily block notifications at the times you specify.

Set Clear and Achievable Goals

My background is in journalism and magazine publishing, so I find that setting strict deadlines for myself is a great way to focus my mind on the task in hand. I divide my work into distinct, manageable chunks and give myself a little reward each time I complete one – a cup of coffee or a 10-minute Facebook break. Create a routine and stick to it – if you’re at your most alert and productive in the morning, reserve the more challenging tasks for those times and keep the more routine stuff or general admin for later in the afternoon. It’s all about learning to organize your time effectively.

Take a Break

When I’m home-working, I take my dog for a walk every day at lunchtime, come rain or shine. A change of scene and a bit of exercise works wonders to reduce stress, increase my energy levels, and prevent that afternoon slump. Regular screen breaks are refreshing, too: I figure that when I’m working in an office, I usually spend part of each day in meetings, chatting with co-workers, and generally hanging out, so I needn’t be too hard on myself about taking a few minutes off now and again at home. Yes, you’ve got to work hard, but you can’t let that inner boss turn into a tyrant. You probably have far higher expectations of yourself than anyone else would have of you.

Maintain Human Contact

It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re working on your own. In my current job, I check in regularly with my colleagues back in the office to make sure that I’m staying on track. In the past, when I’ve been self-employed, I’ve made the effort to meet with clients and other freelancers in person to share experiences and swap home-working tips. No prizes for guessing what advice Dr Kelly will be offering his fellow home-workers at the next faculty barbecue.

If you have any other tips, experiences, or advice on home working that you’d like to share, please use the box, below.

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6 comments on “Setting Boundaries When You’re Working From Home”

  1. I have worked from home for the last 2 years I had the opposite problem from most people in that I worked non-stop! I had to find a healthy work/personal balance. Keeping track of my hours for each project helped. If I was contracted for 10 hours a week, I made sure that was all I worked and wrote up my To Do List for the week with that restriction in mind.

    1. Thank you Tracy for sharing your experiences. Working more than you have been contracted (and paid) to do is easy to do and as you say, it is so important to be clear and keep firm your boundaries! I like the idea of creating your To Do list based on that time limit.

    1. Glad to hear you liked the ideas and tips for setting boundaries when working from home. Hope they prove useful to you.

  2. Thank you Tom. Some great tips in this article. I have worked from home myself and have found that having a separate office and set hours works for me too. On your last point about human contact, I believe this is essential for anyone's sanity. If you're a solopreneur or you work from home every day, I believe loneliness can be a problem. Some people might tell me to get over it, however, I have met countless entrepreneurs who all look for ways to solve the problem of loneliness.

    1. Hi Danny, Great to hear that you enjoyed the article, and thanks as well for sharing your thoughts. As a solopreneur myself, the need to connect with others regularly, to avoid the loneliness, is very important. I make a point of either calling or connecting with someone each day, even for 5 minutes!

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