Working from home? Here's how to set boundaries for a better work-life balance

Therapists weigh in with advice on how to establish new ground rules when your living space suddenly becomes your workspace.
Father with his little son working from home
Having a designated work station is essential, especially if you’re not the only one at home.Getty Images stock

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By Nicole Spector

Though it’s a privilege to work from home, it’s not exactly easy during a global pandemic. How can you give the focus your job demands when kids are home from school clamoring for your attention, or when your spouse is self-isolating with you and insists on blasting the news 24/7 — or even when you have no such distractions, but can’t stop thinking about coronavirus?

Work-life balance has suddenly gone from challenging to seemingly impossible, but there are some steps we can take to make it better. Therapists say setting boundaries is key. Here’s how to start.

Keep your morning routine intact

“It’s important to stick to your routine as closely as you did before because our brains run in patterns and have associations with what we wear and what we do,” says Teralyn Sell, a psychotherapist in Wisconsin. “I’m working from home for the first time in [a while], and though I could sleep an extra hour, I’m rolling through my morning exactly as I normally would. If we throw our routines off, our caveman brain detects a problem. And right now, the world is a problem, so our fight-or-flight responses are on fire and the caveman brain is running the show. Don’t give it another problem.”

This advice applies to people who may be out of work, too. “Find other ways to contribute to the greater good of your household,” Sell says.

Over-communicate your needs and offer help to others

Sit down with family members every day so everyone can discuss what they have going on and how they can best get it done. “Once you’ve told your family what you need to get your work done, ask, ‘What would be helpful for you today?’ The more proactive you are about communication, the better,” says Amy Cirbus, director of clinical content at Talkspace, a virtual therapy company based in New York City.

Create visual cues that let kids know when you’re busy

Cirbus suggests enlisting your kids to help you set boundaries. For example, she says, “Make a fun sign with them that you can hang on the door, so they know when that sign is turned — no interruptions.”

If a sign doesn’t cut it, Robin Gurwitch, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, recommends setting a timer for the period you need to be left alone and letting your kids hang onto it. “When it rings,” she says, “you read a book with them or play a game or whatever it is for, say, 15 minutes. Give them your undivided attention.” Gurwitch adds that children, too, may be having difficulty focusing during this upheaval.

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Claim your space, use headphones and make alone time

Having a designated work station is essential, especially if you’re not the only one telecommuting.

“I have clients creating physical distance literally by claiming a corner,” Cirbus says. “One person will have [headphones] on while the other is on a work call. These are important things to do — as is taking time to be alone, even if that means waking up early just to go for a walk.”

Block off 15 minutes a day to worry

Make a schedule with your family that accounts for every activity — not just the work tasks — to stay on track. This schedule should also include designated time for worrying.

“Schedule 15 minutes — say, from 3 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. as your time to acknowledge any distress,” says Gurwitch. “This is your time to focus solely on that. When the 15 minutes are up, move on to the next thing.”

Sell also vouches for this technique, adding that when an anxious thought pops up, you should write it down, and then return to it during your scheduled worry time.

When you turn off the news, make it a true disconnect

It’s critical to pay attention to the news right now, but it’s also crucial to unplug from it.

“Take breaks on a regular basis, even if that’s just one hour at a time,” says Gurwitch. “When you’re taking that break, log off of social media. Make it a true disconnect.”

Give it time

Dealing with the pandemic is going to take a lot of fortitude. “Forgive yourself and others if things didn’t go as planned, because they probably won’t,” says Cirbus. “Be willing to learn what works and what doesn’t. We’re all running low on patience right now — and boundaries look a lot different than they did a month ago, so be flexible and try again tomorrow."