Gone are the days when work ended when the quitting whistle blew. Today, professionals are expected to write a report over the weekend, or join conference calls during the evening. These demands pose challenges for parents trying to care for their children, and for husbands and wives who want to be meaningfully involved in each other’s lives.

Doing work at home is undesirable because it can exacerbate what sociologists call “role conflict.” When you bring work home, your subconscious mind may be confused as to whether it should assume a work-oriented, cognitive role, or a completely different role more appropriate at home.

Sociologists believe that various habits at the start and the end of the work day, such as standard morning routines or evening commutes, help people mentally shift gears between these different roles. However, bringing work home muddles these daily transitions; the act of leaving the physical space of your office is much less effective at triggering the helpful subconscious changes in your mind.

So the best way to avoid the difficulty of bringing work home is to simply not do it. However, most of us live in the real world, in which professionals frequently need to do work-related tasks at home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20 percent of managers do some work at home on any given day.

If you have to bring work home, you can still try to take advantage of mental cues to separate home and work. Here are a few tips on how to implement this idea:

1. Create a Separate Physical Space

To make it easier for your mind to change roles when you want it to, do all of your work-from-home in a specific physical space. A fancy home office does the trick, but a desk in your bedroom works just as well. The key is that it needs to be a work space, not a shared work-family space such as the kitchen table. You want the act of leaving this work space to help cue your subconscious mind to transition to your family role.

2. Reserve Certain Times for Family

You should also reserve certain times for your family every day, barring only the most urgent of work crises. If certain times of the day are saved for family—and only for family—you will be better able to put work out of your mind and fully turn your attention to your family.

When my two children were young, I worked from home only after they went to sleep. When they became teenagers, I routinely finished up some work on weekend mornings, while they were sleeping in. But I always made sure that work didn’t encroach upon family dinners—that was my reserved time.

3. Be assertive with your boss

To maintain your reserved time, you need to be assertive with your boss. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries; make it crystal clear that you are not available, say, from 7pm to 9pm. During this time, shut off your cell phone and don’t look at your email.

To learn more about setting boundaries at work, read this fascinating bit of research describing how Episcopalian priests preserve their personal time. Even these priests don’t let themselves be on call 24×7

In short, it is difficult to give your family the attention they deserve when you bring work home. If you can leave work at the office, then that is by far the best solution. But if you have to finish up work at home in the evening, do so in a separate physical space, and reserve specific hours as family time.

(Photo credit: Businessman with Briefcase via Shutterstock)

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