The simple activity that will stop your home workday blurring into your life

Struggling to stay focused when working from home? Here are two simple tasks that will help you find balance.

Thanks to COVID, many Australians are now working from home the majority of the time. Maintaining boundaries between your work and non-work life can be so much harder when you work from home—especially if your home office is in a space used for non-work activities, like the kitchen or living room or bedroom.

At the end of your traditional workday, it’s so easy to leave your computer open, grab some dinner, and then shuffle back to your laptop because there is always one more thing you can be doing.

But here’s the thing—to-do lists never end. You will never have finished everything that there is to do because that’s simply not how work works. There is always another email to respond to, another report to complete, another phone call to return.

To maintain boundaries between work and home life when working from home, it is critical that we deliberately shut down our day. Creating a “Shut Down” ritual for yourself makes it easier to create a clear distinction between when your workday ends and when your non-workday (or evening) starts.

Shutting down your day doesn’t have to take long—in fact, the shorter your shut down ritual is, the more likely it is to stick.

An effective way to shut down your day is to write two simple but very specific, sentences.

The first sentence you should write is: “Today I made progress on ….” and then, simply write down the things you made meaningful progress on. It might be a report, a presentation, strategy work, anything!

Research from Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile shows that making progress on projects that matter is the biggest contributor to our motivation and engagement at work. But here’s the thing: when our at-home workdays all blur together (as they have a habit of doing), we don’t naturally stop and reflect on the progress we have made. Asking yourself to deliberately reflect on your daily progress will make you significantly happier at work.

The second sentence to write is: “If I get X done tomorrow, it will be a great day.” This sentence helps you focus on the most important thing you need to achieve to make meaningful progress. It also eliminates the overwhelm that can often characterise our day when we have a million things we feel like we need to achieve.

Once you have identified this one thing, put it in your diary for tomorrow using Timeboxing – that is, schedule a meeting with yourself in your diary to do this activity. By scheduling it in your diary, it prevents co-workers from blocking out your time with their needs and ensures you can prioritise the most important thing that you need to get done.

So, to summarise your Shut Down ritual complete these two sentences: “Today I made progress on ….” and “If I get X done tomorrow, it will be a great day.” And by doing so, you’ll be well on the way to setting clear boundaries for yourself and feeling a whole lot happier and focused during your workdays.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.