In a meeting with a client today we were discussing the programme of talks for their Working Parent Network next year and the conversation kept on circling back to boundaries, or rather lack of boundaries, and managing distractions. How exhausting this was because we are never truly turning off.

A normal working environment is set up specifically to engage people in work and facilitate work. Non work distractions are minimised and the simple possibility of being seen, especially in our open plan glass offices, acts as a form of self control. Home environments are not designed for this and the self control required to keep going is exhausting us. This is one of the reasons we are seeing burnout symptoms with some of the working parents we are coaching right now.

The phenomenon is well documented by psychologists and explained by The Strength Model of Self Control which sees self-control as a limited resource. Just as physical exertion makes our muscles tired and depletes our physical energy, engaging in self control exhausts our mental energy. Working from home requires supreme acts of self control. We have disruptions from other people in the home, children and pets, temptations such as the sun shining outside and the friend pleading to go for a walk and distractions such as the pile of dishes in the sink, noises in the home and the street, messages and social media. No wonder our self control resources are depleted and we are mentally exhausted.

For working parents with children at home this is particularly difficult territory and causes a great deal of angst and guilt. Young children do not understand why their parent is in the room but not available to them. A working parent might have to endure the sound of their child crying and being pacified by someone else whilst they are at work. Older children isolating due to exposure to someone with Covid-19 at school might be asking for help with schoolwork or a snack.

And this brings me back to the boundaries. The single most effective way to refresh mental energy and reduce the toll of disruptions, temptation and distraction is to mentally disconnect from work when you are away from your job. Psychologists call this psychological detachment. The more the work day stretches out and merges with everything else, the less detachment there is. The simple act of leaving the office or commuting creates a natural demarcation and when working from home we need to create these artificially and for working parents this includes, where possible and safe, creating space in between the work rather than alongside the work for being a parent.

My suggestions for managing boundaries look so simple and obvious as I write them below but ironically they take self control to implement and this is the very thing in short supply. So I go back to my old mantra which is to call on line managers to communicate with their teams, help them put these in place and make then accountable for sticking with them.

1.   Create a dedicated work space that signals it is time to work when you sit down in it and time to stop when you leave it. Put work out of sight at the end of the working day so that it is not a constant reminder of what you are not doing when you are not working. If your work space doubles us as living space or a sleeping space this is all the more reason to do that.

2.     Set specific working hours. Of course there needs to be flexibility but being conscious about what time you are meant to start and finish your day will mean that you make a deliberate choice to work longer hours rather than fall in to it.

Also be deliberate about how you use found time which is the time you have gained by not commuting or travelling on business. Is this now added to your working day? Does this mean you can find time in the day to refresh? Can it be used to establish healthy habits and mitigate the sedentary aspects of remote work.

3.     Plan breaks. At the office many of us take more short breaks that we realise, bumping into people in the corridor or the lift and having a chat, popping out for a coffee, going the bathroom (which is not in the next room). Create times in the day for a proper lunch break and schedule coffee breaks with colleagues or friends. Create times to batch dispense the things that are distracting you such as the laundry or the cat. Consider a longer working day with longer breaks as this works for some people.

4.     Broadcast your working hours and schedules and breaks to family members or housemates or friends who might otherwise assume that if you are at home you are available. 

5.     Create a commute. As much as we might complain about the daily commute it bookends the working day and is behaviour that signals the beginning and end. Go for a walk around the block before you start the working day to signal it is time to begin. At the end at the end of the day, after putting your work things away, do this again to tell yourself you are clocking off.

And finally, creating and adhering to boundaries is not a lone activity. Let your team and your boss and your family know what you are aiming to do and why and ask them to not only respect it but to call you out when you are not respecting it.

Please share your ideas on managing boundaries and distraction.