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February 18, 2021 Article

Dotted Lines…Straight Lines…Holding the Lines: Working Well and Happily from Home Requires Boundaries, Planning, and PSAs

To operate at your best, set boundaries for your time, physical space, and self-care.

By Ariana J. Tadler

As much as we might wish it otherwise, COVID has made working from home no longer an aberration but a reality that will continue for some time. Perhaps, like me, when we made that remote pivot in March 2020, you thought no commute and less business travel could be a nice change of pace for a month or two. So you set up your home office, a nook somewhere in your home or even a seat at the kitchen counter, and said, “I got this! I can do my job and have time to do all the things I have been wanting to do—exercise more, eat better, read more, meditate, learn a new language or how to play an instrument, create photo books (or at least print some of the thousands of photos I have taken over the last decade, with my kids now 23 and 21!).”

Perhaps you have done all that you set out to do. If so, bravo! If not—if that “extra time” that you intended to grab hold of for yourself evaporated as the demands of “home” seized it—then, as we say in the tech world, “You may need a ‘reset.’”

COVID has had a particularly harsh impact on women. Nobody anticipated that by transitioning to a work-from-home environment, all sorts of other jobs would be on you. Some of my not so favorites are team laundress, short-order cook, and quicker picker upper.

In my case, we went from being an empty nest to having responsibilities up and down the generational pike. Our quiet abode of two suddenly had a returning grown child (who is now the size of, and eats like, Paul Bunyan). We delivered groceries to high-risk family members outside our home. (I now keep collapsible crates in my car to keep things sorted.) But my personal load, while feeling heavier for me, was and is substantially less than the load carried by those of you who have cared for an aging or ill loved one during this time. And it was and is most certainly less than the load carried by those of you who have had to facilitate learning and fill new time gaps during which children were once in school—leaving children to their own devices (computer devices, among other things) has proven to be unsustainable. I am in awe of the phenomenal teachers who have worked tirelessly to teach and keep children’s attention in the Zoom environment. They are superheroes—my sister is one of them—as are the parents, all of whom are trying to teach (which is more work) from home and manage these stresses.

Maybe, Like Me, You Need a Reset

If you really want to be productive working from home and maintain some sense of sanity and control over your time and your life, you may need a “reset.” Map out a schedule—one that is realistic—that incorporates not only your job but also that day-to-day home stuff and self-care. The only person who can take care of your personal well-being is, well, you. If you don’t schedule time for exercise, meditation (or just time to breathe), and activities that bring you joy, nobody is going to schedule them for you. And as life coaches, business strategists, and even evangelists tell us, to make it a reality you must not only visualize it, plan it, and take action; you must say it out loud. You need to vocalize it for yourself and, just as importantly, let others know so that all can manage expectations.

So what are some of the actions that you might take to better manage the stresses of working from home? Set boundaries for your time, your physical space, and your self-care.

Boundaries: Time, Space, and Matter

Between work and home life, you may well feel like a pinball in an arcade game. In pinball, there are targets and bumpers. The targets are just that—you want to hit them with the ball. We do that by planning ahead. The bumpers are the boundaries—if you let the ball get past too many bumpers, you will ultimately lose control of the ball, which will disappear down the hole. If ever there was a time to draw some boundaries, it’s now so that you don’t lose control of the ball or yourself, for that matter.

Time. When do you need to do your job successfully—during which hours and for how many hours?

Plan out your week ahead of time; and, if need be, plan out each day separately. Whether you use an old-school planner (those of us who are super geeks used to use a Filofax) or an app, there are tools galore to help you map out how you intend to use your time. That’s right. If you want to reduce stress working from home, be intentional by writing down or typing out what you will do when. Many people are turning to their phones and choosing apps or even just the “reminders,” “notes,” “tasks,” or “calendar” features to plan out their time and stay on task.

As much as I love technology, after trying numerous apps, last year I reverted to an old-school planner with a variety of planning tool inserts that help you organize monthly, weekly, and daily schedules as well as projects. I use the Levenger Circa series, but I just read about women-owned Inkwell Press’s customizable planner. Unlike a traditional book planner, the pages of which are bound, these disc style planners enable you to add and remove pages and reorder them as needed. And there are even inserts that can be used to make lists for others, say, for example, your housemates—lists that might be left on a counter or a chair, perhaps, as gentle to-do or not-to-do reminders. The hard-copy choice works for me because I like to plan at the end of the day after I have had my fill of my phone and tablet. I relish using a real pen or even a mechanical pencil when things are really chaotic! When I write things down, I am intentional about my morning workouts and Monday meditations, just as when I schedule a specific time for business development or firm management tasks.

Thanks to some collaborative thinking at my firm, our team came up with MC (Management Committee) Wednesdays. Absent something pressing, my co-managing partner and I reserve Wednesdays to focus on firm management, finance, and business development. We found that we are far more creative and productive and much more likely to tick those items off our respective lists if we allot a time undisturbed by Zoom/phone calls, emails, and even text messages.

Not all jobs are alike. If we are honest, we will admit that we are not seated at our desks working straight for eight hours. By now, you know yourself well enough to identify when you are most productive. Schedule specific work tasks during these times. If your job is such that you can set your own hours, consider whether adjusting your start time earlier or later might give you some time slots when your home is quiet—perhaps earlier in the morning or later in the evening. You might also want to split your day into two shifts, with some work tasks early in the morning and others later in the day.

What is it that you need to do in that time? When it comes to work, there are no doubt specific tasks that you need to complete, such as communications with clients and service providers, research, brief writing, and hearing prep. And how about some time for creative thinking to build your client base or case inventory? Some tasks require more focus than others. For the items that do require clear focus, be sure to schedule these at a time when there are the fewest distractions (when you know others in your home won’t be there or will be busy doing something without the need for your attention). And if you are not in control of the schedule (for example, a court hearing or deposition), you will need to alert others (for me, that’s my husband and sons) in advance that you will need Quiet, Please!

And, lest we forget, we all need a break at some point, both mentally and physically. Nobody should be seated at a desk for eight or more straight hours. When you were in a traditional office, you likely picked yourself up at some point to chat with a colleague, grab something to eat, take a bio break, or just stretch your legs. If you are not doing that now, you should be. (And if you don’t think you ever did that when you were in a traditional office, you are kidding yourself—even the strongest of warriors need some relief.) Using those breaks productively can be a win-win. You can give your brain a break and do a quick house-related task that perhaps under what were once normal circumstances had to wait until after you got home or the weekend.

But beware of the vacuum suck: Just because you are working from home does not mean that you now should do your job and all house- and family-related tasks too. If you don’t live alone, others should be expected to pitch in. We’re all living in a pandemic, for goodness sake. It should be all for one and one for all.

And be careful not to get distracted during that break such that you delay returning to the tasks you must complete. Working from home has highlighted just how easy it is to get distracted—seeing the kitchen is messy and cleaning it; hearing the call from a pile of laundry sitting on the floor (even though it has had your grown-up son’s name on it for days); passing by the TV and becoming engrossed in the latest breaking story (or, on a lighter note, HGTV for just a minute). So, when you take that break, be intentional as to what you are going to do with that time and for how long. If you are easily distracted, set a timer. You already have one—it’s the alarm clock on your cell phone! Set as many “alerts” as you like. You can even name them and give them different tones.

Space. If you really want to get your job done efficiently, you need a space where you can do your work when you need to work without disruption or distraction. Where and how you set yourself up to work play a critical role as to how productive you can be. You need a good work surface, a comfortable chair (or, if you are my law partner, a ball—she has a strong core and awesome posture), good lighting, and, when necessary, Quiet, Please!

If you live in a house, sitting at the kitchen table when others in the house are coming and going (or attending school remotely) is not optimal. But you may not have a choice. If you live in an apartment or small space, securing a spot to avoid all distraction may be impossible, so be creative: Locate a corner, drop the pin, and make it your own as best you can. Designating a space where you will work will facilitate getting things done without (well, with less) distraction and keeping the things you need handy in one place.

Wherever you may be, personalize that space and organize it with the items you need. If there is no table or desk, consider investing in an old-school folding card table for as little as $35. Another option is a collapsible desk on wheels. Some include standing functionality and even have shelves for storage. These can be found for as little as $50. Social media networks and forums may also offer quick options.

You may want to also invest in a good pair of headphones so that you can work without the disruption of every noise in your home. There are many listening options, such as instrumental music or soothing nature sounds that some say help them to stay focused.

Wherever you choose to set your work space, be sure to set it up so that it is free of clutter. You want anybody looking at your space to know that it is obviously where you work.

Matter. You matter! Your work matters! It matters to you and it most certainly should matter to those with whom you live—regardless of whether you are the primary earner, your contribution should be valued and respected. You must perform at your best to be effective. To perform at your best, you must set expectations for yourself and those around you.

You are at your best when you are strong mentally, physically, and emotionally. To fulfill the expectations you set for yourself, you must engage in healthy self-care. It is incumbent upon you to make the time to eat well, exercise, and rest your brain and your body. There are many free apps out there to help with self-care, such as exercise and even breathing. By scheduling these things in your weekly plan, you are investing in and equipping yourself with the strength and endurance that you need for this marathon that we find ourselves on. (You might try a walk and talk with those headphones.)

And if you want your plan to work, you need to let others know what’s on deck for you and what you need from them. Make public service announcements to those with whom you live! Yes, you really should say out loud for all in your work-from-home environment to hear that your upcoming week looks like [this] and tomorrow you have [that], and if they want to have a dinner to eat or clean clothes, you need them to please do [XYZ]. Really communicate with them as to what you need to do your job from home and what you need from them. (I cook two dinners during the week, aim to keep things tidy, and do my laundry; my husband and son cook or sometimes order in for us, feed and walk our beloved dog, and do their laundry.)

Be sure to reciprocally listen and take note of the needs of others too. Being empathetic and receptive to others’ needs will encourage them to reciprocate. (Just ask phenoms Alex Carter, author of Ask for More, and Kwame Christian of the American Negotiation Institute (you can also subscribe to his Negotiate Anything podcast)).

Rather than dwelling on the negatives of working from home, use this time as an opportunity to teach and share skills that will serve everyone well in the long run. By managing expectations, we all can be productive, individually and collectively, and, of course, “live happily ever after.”

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Ariana J. Tadler is the founding partner of Tadler Law LLP in New York, New York. 

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