11 Tips to Improve Your Work by Sandboxing It from the Rest of Your Life

I work as a freelance technical writer and developer. I love working, but the quality suffers if I let it completely take over.

Thinking about work tasks when I’m not working just preemptively fatigues me from that task. While inspiration (and bugfixes) often strike me when I’m out enjoying my time off, more often than not these answers would have come during work hours. All I’m doing is making my downtime less relaxing and my working hours more frustrated.

Focus requires relaxation, so here are some of the habits I’ve been developing to keep work contained. A shorter, more focussed work day with higher quality output is much better than spending all day half-heartedly poking at your keyboard!

Separate browser/mail client/user profile

The first thing you need to do to separate your work from your life is to make sure you can close it all down at the end of the day. A separate browser/mail client or user profile on your computer are effective ways to do this. You can close your browser or log out of your work profile at the end of the day and not be tempted by notifications or ‘just one last thing to check’. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s also good security-wise, keeping your work sessions isolated from whatever you do on the internet in your personal life.

Disable notifications on your phone

This will probably offend some management types, but I keep Slack and my work mail muted on my phone. If my work browser and Slack are open on my laptop (where I do my work), I receive a notification. If I want to know if I have any work notifications when I’m not working, I have to check them manually (I have exceptions for urgent things like server outages, however).

This means when I disconnect from work, I’m not plugged back in by an unimportant notification. Minor problems that don’t require immediate action can’t ‘pre-stress’ me about returning to work by making me think about all of the stuff I need to do. When I do get back to work, I have a clear mind and can assess what needs to be accomplished next.

Don’t take your work on holiday

Just don’t do it man, it’s a holiday, enough said.

Define a workspace if you’re working from home

Don’t work from the bloody couch. Define a workspace and don’t work outside of it. Otherwise you’ll find yourself relaxing at 11pm, watching TV feeling like you should be ‘doing’ something because you’ve turned your recliner into the office.

Find somewhere new to work from

Whether you work from the home or office, a change of scenery can jump-start productivity. The same environment day-in and day-out isn’t stimulating, and this is especially the case if you’re WFH – you’re probably looking at the same room from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed. Boring.

Go and work in the park (data tethering is cheap now), find a shared office, or go to the local library. Even the pub is an option (just make sure you’re on the soft drinks until quitting time).

Working somewhere else helps define the line between work and not-work – if you’re self employed, having a separate workspace a pleasant walking distance from your home gives you time to engage and disengage from your work mindset, keeping your home for home stuff.

Define a schedule (and stick to it)

Decide when you will work, and stick to it. It’s not about the sheer number of hours either – some people can get done in 3 hours what others can in 6. Figure out how many hours a day you need (and are comfortable) with working, and stick to it.

Crunch periods do happen (and are arguably necessary), especially when starting new projects. That said, once you’ve booted your latest brainchild out of the door, you should return to a regular schedule ASAP.

Actually take lunch and go for a run, walk, nap

Downtime is a valuable part of the creative process. Rather than your afternoons being a period of reduced productivity as you slow down after a busy morning, they can be used to solve problems you may have encountered earlier in the day. A walk, nap, or run in the early afternoon will refresh you.

Taking a break also acts as a reminder that work is work – it’s a thing you do, but it’s not all that you do.

Keep your priorities in order

If you’re a freelancer, focus on what’s making money, and then decide how much time to assign for finding a profitable path for other ideas, or working on new ones.

If you’re working in a team, make sure that you regularly communicate and verify priorities with your teammates. You don’t want to miss a high priority task which then has to be rushed, impeding on your personal time.

Once you’ve optimized your productivity within your set work hours, the rest of the day is yours. Time off to recuperate and enjoy your life is a priority.

Admit that some things don’t get done, and may never get done

Note: This only applies when working on personal projects, not when working with others.

Some tasks will just constantly be bumped down the priority ladder as newer, more important ones come in. Eventually you’ll have tasks on your todo list that are months old. Periodically evaluate them, and cull the ones that are no longer relevant, or just aren’t important – not every idea needs to be acted on, and if it’s been in the queue for months, it’s probably not important enough to divert time towards.

Some tasks can also become complete blockers. Whether you dread doing them because they’re banal, or complex, or just because you never seem to get around to them to the point even thinking about them is frustrating, they sit in your queue and distract you from more important tasks. Nix them, or at least put them on a hidden list so that you always have an uncluttered, actionable plan for your day.

Make work a mood

Once, I had my favorite song as my morning wake up alarm. After a few months I never wanted to hear that song again. Music doesn’t just affect your mood, but it can be associated with what you’re doing while listening.

I usually keep a totally separate playlist for work, that’s a different genre than what I’d usually listen to. I still enjoy it, but I don’t associate my favorite music with work. Rain/weather/ambient sounds are also great when you are trying to concentrate – they’re less distracting, so you won’t find yourself fist pumping the air during an awesome key-change and losing your place in your code.

Get a hobby

Workaholics often need a mental treadmill – we’re not so much work obsessed as we just like working on something! So, find something to work on that isn’t work related – it should have no career implications, or be something you want to eek an income out of. Find something you enjoy that keeps you occupied and 100% not thinking about the stresses related to your livelihood.

If you’re thinking about work… You’re working

With the constant pressure to increase productivity and monetize every aspect of your life (the dreaded ‘side-hustle’), work will take over your life if you don’t keep it under control. The best way to do this is to keep it isolated, so you can focus on it when it counts.

Once I’d successfully beaten work back from the frontlines of the rest of my life, I found I was getting much more done overall and was much less stressed. Projects are completed within their defined schedules, and the quality of the work has drastically improved which means less time wasted fixing mistakes (we’ve all written code at 3am only to find that it needs to be re-written the next day…)

Better quality work means happier clients. Happy clients means more money. More money means more fun. You don’t live to work, you work to live.

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