Hands up if you’re looking forward to the resumption of your commute…?

Despite the fact that it’s April Fools’ day as this blog goes to press, it’s not a trick question. The commute gets a bad rap in popular culture, its imagery that of monstrous tailbacks on the M25 or weary city workers packed on unreliable trains like sardines. However, despite all that, commuting gives us something that many people have struggled to recreate over the last year – a boundary between working and not working.

Whether it’s a good one or a bad one, a commute is a time boundary that can’t be eroded and even if you choose to spend it catching up on email, you’re still away from the sightlines of the office and can take off your professional ‘game face’ and start to unwind.

Working from home, though, the commute can be wafer-thin – mine is about five seconds, a fleeting stumble from bedroom to home office – and that can present challenges. How do you wind down and process the events of the work day when the lines are so blurred and work so close at hand?

Having worked from home for a long time now as a virtual GTD® coach, even before the pandemic, here are a few suggestions about how to recreate boundaries if yours have been smashed to smithereens.

Establish a baseline calendar

Once you know what ‘good’ should look like in terms of how you balance your day, then keep it in mind. In the face of a barrage of incoming pressures on your time it’s all too easy to succumb and suddenly find yourself overcommitted. Having a ‘baseline calendar’ doesn’t guarantee that this won’t happen, but it makes it a little less likely because it gives you some boundaries to try to defend.

My current baseline calendar is as follows;

  • 0600-0800 Deep work – reading, writing, thinking, planning
  • 0900-1200 Focused, client-facing work (coaching, meetings, calls)
  • 1200-1400 Loose downtime (lunch, gym, allotment, nap)
  • 1400-1600 Low energy work (social media, admin, clarifying inboxes).

These are recurring free blocks in my Outlook calendar, a kind of wireframe for what I want to happen. It’s not foolproof. Sometimes clients want afternoon seminars and they come first because they pay the rent. Sometimes unexpected fires break out and they have to be extinguished. Sometimes I’m tired – maybe even a tad hungover – and the early morning deep work goes out the window.

Nonetheless, every day the reminder of a plan is there in the calendar, my wise past self tapping my current self on the shoulder saying, “Hey, here’s what you know generates the best results and makes you happy. Try and make sure it happens if you can.”

It might not end up happening – as Mike Tyson once observed, everyone has a plan until they get a smack in the mouth – but it’s still better to have a plan than not.

What does your ideal day look like and how do you try to defend it?

Establish transitional rituals

I first heard the phrase ‘transitional ritual’ from Professor Linda Gratton of the London Business School and I like it as a way to denote the navigational waypoints between the different parts of our day. The commute is a ritual, even if, for some, it’s a crappy one. Treating yourself to the overpriced cappuccino at the station, listening to your favourite podcast, seeing the same faces on the platform (and giving them the cautious English upward half-nod). All provide a familiar structure.

The rituals available to you when working from home are different but you can have them nonetheless. For me, one ritual in the transition from the first chunk of the day to the second at around 8am is coffee and shower. Interestingly, it’s often a really productive activity as well, a place where good ideas will ‘pop’, flashes of insight related to things I’ve been working on for the previous couple of hours. And I’m not alone. The work culture specialist Bruce Daisley tells the story of the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin getting a shower installed at work to help him tackle writer’s block, and then having a number of showers a day. Seems to be working out alright for him; check out his CV – The West Wing, The Social Network, The Trial of the Detroit 7 and more.

What are your transitional rituals? A kickabout with the kids? A walk with the dog? A stroll with your partner?

Establish a closedown procedure

Perhaps the most important ritual of the day is its ending because that’s where you get your real life back, and that can be the biggest challenge of all. The economist John Maynard Keynes thought that 15 hours a week was how much we’d be working in total by now in the leisure-based society he imagined technology would usher in. Instead, that number is closer to the estimates of how much extra people have been working from home. The French have a nice word that highlights this nasty problem – Lundimanche – the gradual blending of Sunday and Monday.

So here are a few things you can do at the end of the day to signal to yourself and others that the day is over. Consider the ones you think might work in your situation.

  • Set your out-of-office to show you’ve clocked off, but include a ‘safety catch’ to cover your derriere if needed; e.g. “I’ve now finished for the day and will pick up your emails again tomorrow morning. However, if it’s urgent and can’t wait until then, please text me.” I once heard a story from a seminar participant about an exec who did something similar while on their summer holidays but asked colleagues to reach him via his wife’s phone. Nobody did.
  • Switch off alerts and put devices out of reach. Try for an hour or half-hour at a time if even the idea makes you twitch, or if colleagues need a while to readjust to your new work standards. Then gradually increase the dose.
  • Review tomorrow’s calendar and lists before you close your laptop. Benefits of knowing what’s coming at you tomorrow include not spending the evening wondering about it and also knowing how much longer you can sleep in the morning, just like David Allen.

Some of the above might be handy going into Bank Holiday weekends, too. Happy Easter!

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