This past summer my husband and I took a trip to Finland. My parents are Finnish immigrants, and I am first generation Finnish-American. We had a lovely three weeks, and when we returned I unpacked, stood in the doorway of my home office and contemplated going back to work. At that moment I heard the voice. It could have been mine, the universe, or maybe my dog, but it said, ”You can’t work here anymore.”
Now perhaps you think I just didn’t want to go back to work, and that’s probably a teensy bit true, but in actuality, I didn’t want to work there. From home. And I never did again.
Luckily I found an office within a week, or FORTE would have ceased to exist.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with working from home, and if I had to choose either/or, I’d go with hate. Yes, it’s convenient, but not so much when you have a husband who is home in the mornings-I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit down and say, “Honey, I work here, so please stop walking into my office to chat”- and it’s really difficult to walk by a sink of dirty dishes and not drop what you’re doing to wash them. Not to mention the call of the afternoon nap, Days of Our Lives, and don’t even get me started on the constant snacking.
Working from home was beginning to take its toll. I either worked so much that I was writing copy for the website until 11 p.m., or I was so overwhelmed that I sat all day and did nothing. The latter wouldn’t be a problem on occasion, but it was difficult to relax and recharge when my work was always staring me back in the face.
I began to get anxious every morning, dreading going into my office to work. My home began to feel like a prison. It wasn’t until after my three week vacation that clarity hit: I was guilty of contamination.
Contamination is really easy to do. We’re constantly spilling one aspect of our life into another, instead of keeping them separate. My theory is we don’t take contamination seriously, thinking that efficiency is more important than sanity. This is why we bring our work into the bedroom, or our laptops into bed and then we wonder why we can’t turn our brains off and relax.
It’s easy to contaminate because location holds memory. Have you ever sat in your living room -perhaps watching TV- and then got up to grab something from another room, only to forget half-way there what it is you were after? What do you have to do? You have to go back. Walking back to the living room jogs your memory.
To illustrate this idea, let me borrow an example from the classroom. We caution teachers to avoid disciplining from the same spot in which they teach, because it makes it much more difficult for students to go back to learning. They can’t erase the memory of the discipline or the upcoming consequence from their minds. Instead we ask teachers to stop teaching, move to a different location, discipline from there, and then return back to the teaching spot. Students are more able to shake off the discipline because it was done in a different location.
We’ve observed in hundreds of classrooms and found that teachers only have to walk to the “discipline” spot twice before students understand what’s happening. The third time the teacher walks to the predetermined location, students are already shushing each other because they know that they’re about to get into trouble. The teacher has never indicated what the spot means, she or he has just been systematic about moving there every time the class needs discipline. This spot becomes so powerfully associated in the minds of the students, that we have to caution teachers to not do anything else from that spot.
Which just shows that we have to be careful -in all aspects of our lives- to decontaminate. In other words, we need to get systematic about where we do certain tasks, and be careful about what types of visual reminders are present. For teachers, lawyers, and managers, that means moving to a new location for the delivery of negative information. For me it meant moving my office out of my home. For those working from home who neither have the desire nor means to work somewhere else, it may mean containing work to one room and not spilling paperwork onto the kitchen table or working on the laptop in the living room. For those who work outside of the home, it might mean putting the briefcase into the closet when you walk in the door, and agreeing to stop checking email at night and on weekends.
Decontaminating my work environment has had a tremendous effect on my work and home life. I’m able to concentrate when I’m at work, and relax when I’m at home. My productivity has doubled. Look around and see if you’re inadvertently contaminating your home or workspace. Be vigilant about protecting your space and you’ll find it’s easier to concentrate, relax, and find balance.