Before COVID-19, most of us benefited from the expectation of annual leave, set days off and clear boundaries between home and work. This separation enabled most to be free from the demands of work and enjoy ‘downtime’ as well as plan for the more mundane things such as childcare and household chores.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live, work and connect with the world around us. In particular, it is breaking down the boundaries between work and home. For many, we are now required to give more time, more of our private life and in some cases, our living space to work demands.
This presents some significant challenges to wellbeing, relationships and productivity.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the phrase ’emotional labour’ in response to the increasing expectations in the workplace to control our emotions; ‘smile, be positive and empathic regardless of how we are feeling inside.’ Research suggests this can have a deadening effect on our emotional life outside work and poses significant challenges around how we protect our mental health and relationships during COVID-19 and beyond.
Argyle’s (2003) pioneering work in the field of positive psychology highlights the critical interplay between good relationships and leisure time with productivity. Hitting home the importance of establishing clear boundaries and daily routines that draw a clear separation between work time and home life.
The problem, as we all know, is that this is easier said than done!
However, the first step is often the hardest, and it's to acknowledge that separating work and home life is necessary.
No one can force you to take a step back from work or invest your time elsewhere but to be brutal, it’s guaranteed to be an issue at some point, as burning the candle at both ends means you run the risk of eroding relationships and burnout.
5 brain hacks to separate work and home life
1. When working from home, minimise the devices in which you access your work emails and do your work on.
It sounds obvious but using the same device for your work as you do Facebook, confuses your subconscious mind and puts it into ‘work mode’ at a time when you might actually be trying to relax.
2. Minimise the impact of changes in your routine.
Our Circadian Timing System is our biological clock that synchronises our biology and behaviour with our environment. It’s why we operate and function differently during daylight hours, reinforced by daily routines like commuting to work and finishing work at relatively fixed times.
Although zero commute time lets you slip instantly from breakfast to work mode, the absence of these routine’ time cues’ play havoc with your biological clock and impacts your motivation and ability to remain focused and productive when it comes to sitting down and completing work tasks.
Creating a short routine ‘commute walk’ for before and after work, that mimics the daylight exposure of your daily commute, helps your brain and body recognise a difference and helps you physically and mentally separate work from home life much easier.
3. Plan your working day into 90-minute chunks.
Research shows that 90 minutes is about the amount of time you can maintain high levels of alertness, focus and concentration before you become less effective. Scientists call this your Ultradian Rhythm and your brain will tell you when you need a break because you’ll become fidgety, irritable and unable to concentrate.
4. Build your Stability Zones.
Stability Zones are the places, ideas, groups or things you have around you that make you feel safe, secure and confident. You can use them both as a buffer to stress and a way to relax or to switch your brain into work mode for more productivity.
When it comes from working from home, work with what is available to you. If you don’t have a spare room, pick a ‘work’ chair, work outfit or specific pair of shoes, anything that gives you the confidence and mental associations you need to get into the zone.
Conversely, if you need to switch your brain off and relax and recoup after a taxing day, the Stability Zones you need to identify and nurture might be your family, a friend, a good book or even a nice relaxing bath!
5. Create a pre-sleep routine.
Remember the ‘time cues’ I mentioned earlier? Creating a pre-sleep routine helps your brain make a clear association between certain activities and sleep. For example, if you read before bedtime, your brain and body know that reading at night signals sleep. If you take a warm bath, it knows its time to slow down and relax.
If you tend to be a ‘worrier’ whilst you lie in bed at night, try busying your brain with mental exercises. Research shows that being able to distract yourself from worries can be enough to help you fall asleep. Perhaps run through your favourite song lyrics or even focusing on a specific object – its colour size etc.
It sounds ridiculous, but the more you train your brain to do this last thing at night, the easier it becomes, and the quicker you will start to relax.
The brain is a machine of habit, and it takes its cues from our experience and routine.
We can choose to either let the environment around us shape us or train ourselves to implement small changes that will make a big difference in separating work tasks and pressures for home life. These 5 brain hacks are exactly that, they are hacks that kick start your brain into a different way of approaching today’s challenges. But it’s important to realise that changing routines and habits never happen overnight, it takes commitment and practice.