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Keeping Focus: Separating Your Personal and Professional Lives

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Laptop at the Beach

A really common problem that a lot of entrepreneurs and business owners have, is that their work lives and their personal lives tend to blur together. For those of you fortunate enough to never experience this, it’s the feeling that you’ve never really left the office when you’re at home and that whatever you have going on at home comes with you to the office everyday. Another way of looking at it would be this: I’ve only got one iPhone – should I get a second one to manage my work life, or do I just put everything on the one?

For the most part, it really is best to separate out your personal and professional contexts. There are exceptions to this of course, and we’ll cover them here. As much as I’m writing this article, in my mind it’s crystal clear as to where the boundaries are for me personally – and I’d like to help AE readers make that distinction in their own lives too.

The problem generally lies with entrepreneurs, business owners, freelancers and people who work really-long hours, or work from home. The old adage is that when you work for yourself, if you don’t do it… no one else will. These people need to look at separation from two perspectives: inner and outer. A separation needs to be made in your mind as to where the boundaries between work and home are, and to recognize where it’s acceptable for those boundaries to blur (and where it’s not too!) There is also the issue of productivity tools – do you have one laptop for work and one for home? One iPhone or two?

The terms “home” and “office” are going to be used liberally in this article, but they really are short for “home context” and “work context”. That is,  if you work from home, “office” will refer to when you are doing tasks and actions related to your business, and “home” is when you’re handling personal items.

We’re about to go into detail about all of this. But the short answer upfront is this: it’s generally not a problem to mix your tools together, but you want to lay down clear boundaries internally with your time and focus.

Mental Separation

The first distinction that should be made about mentally separating your personal and professional contexts, is that your approach to tasks in either context should not be all that different. Some people feel that they have to put on different identities at work and at home. While it’s true that you may play different roles (e.g., analyst, husband) at home and at work, your approach to doing things really won’t vary that much – how you do one thing, is how you do everything. In fact, borrowing some skillsets from the workplace to use at home and vice-versa can be quite helpful. You can approach things like grocery shopping, handling your personal finances with the same efficiency as say constructing project plans at work.

The largest concern when it comes to distinguishing between your home and work life is your focus, or what you are doing at a given time. The number one rule is this: no multitasking.

Because that’s important, here it is again:

No Multitasking.

What this means, is that while you’re sitting in your home office say writing, you shouldn’t be on Facebook chat talking to your friends at the same time. And while you’re spending time with family, you shouldn’t be on your smartphone checking work emails. You want to keep a clear separation in your mind as to what a professional task is, and what a personal task is, and which one you’re doing at each moment. Everyone needs to define their own boundaries as to where that separation is. The easiest way to do this is to break down the different areas where the boundaries tend to get blurred. Let’s look at these one-by-one.

Social

The blurriest one is social. This really depends on your social circle, whether you have family that you live with or not and whether you happen to work with close friends (or whether people at work have become close friends). As an example, lots of online marketers tend to make friends with other online marketers – so naturally, when they’re out on personal time socializing, the topics of work and industry do come up. This is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as they recognize that it is personal time being spent. What you don’t want to happen is say you have a spouse or children or family members who have nothing to do with your work, and you end up discussing your professional life in detail with them. If that happens, you need to use your brain and visually form a mental box around your work concerns, and give it a time-release lock that doesn’t open until you’re back in the office.

I received a piece of advice when I was really young that I never really understood until I saw it applied (and broken) in my own life repeatedly. It is this:

When you leave the office, leave all your worries, frustrations and annoyances there. Don’t bring them home to your family.

If you work from home, you have to make this break mentally.

Time

If you’re already time tracking, then setting boundaries on your time shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re not, you should use what are called timeblocks or timeboxes. This is essentially where you schedule an appointment with yourself for a certain number of hours, and during those hours, you work on only what you have scheduled in. For example, if you work from home, you may want to schedule in 8am-12pm and 1pm-6pm as working hours, and then have 6pm-10pm as personal time.

Finances

It’s obvious, but your professional and personal finances should really be separate. It just makes the accounting and bookkeeping easier (not to mention the tax implications).

Note: I am not an accountant or lawyer, so listen to your advisors if they say otherwise – follow their advice.

Health

Health is an interesting area where the boundaries are often clearly defined, but in a bad way. The strange thing about health is that for most people, their physical and mental health directly impacts their professional life, and yet the maintenance and upkeep and growth comes purely out of their personal time. This is where you need to push the responsibility for maintaining your health somewhat into your professional life – simple things like learning to take breaks while you work, sitting ergonomically or getting some sunlight during the day.

Tools of the Trade

Now that we’ve defined how to separate things out in our mind, let’s turn to our productivity tools. If you happen to have separate equipment (e.g., computers, phones) for work and home, then this decision has likely already been made for you. If you use one computer and phone for everything however, you have some decisions to make. From our experience, we find that some things are better to keep together, while others are better to separate.

You should keep together:

  • Task Managers (with different sections for work/home).
  • Schedules and calendars.

You should separate:

Next Actions

  • Don’t stress too much about keeping everything totally separate. Remember that your life is a complex story and organism, and that things to blur together sometimes.
  • Decide on how you’re going to divide your productivity tools.
  • Realize that if you hang out a lot with people in your industry, work will be discussed.
  • Don’t feel pressured to be always working. Downtime is good too.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know below!

Photo By: puuikibeach

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7 Comments

Posted by Edgars  | October 27, 2015 at 4:21PM | Reply

Thanks for article! I have tried many different productivity tools and solutions but they seems to not working out for me. I believe it’s because of my approach.

I am web projects manager and entrepreneur, there fore I must manage:
*) Personal life tasks;
*) Business related tasks;
*) Project related tasks;
*) Goals related tasks.

I have tried to use Nozbe for tasks management, then I tried to separate step tasks leaving them into Nozbe and Project related tasks I moved to Wrike.

Then problem was that I had to manage to separate systems. So I decided to mode everything to Wrike. Now I’m facing another challenge – because of my personal tasks I haven’t completed or have been procrastinating, I have so many overdue tasks on my lists, so I all the time have this unbelievable list feeling etc.

How you would suggest me to manage all this mess?

Posted by Ed Bentall  | March 19, 2015 at 7:48AM | Reply

Hi Hillary,

For you email tasks, you should be able to set up a rule in Oulook which would effectively do this:

IF email is FROM a specific email address (or includes certain words in the subject) forward it to Omnifocus email

You may find the following links helpful in setting this up:

Outlook Rule Setup
https://support.office.com/en-sg/article/Manage-email-messages-by-using-rules-c24f5dea-9465-4df4-ad17-a50704d66c59

OmniFocus Maildrop
https://support.omnigroup.com/omnifocus-mail-drop

If you’ve not heard of If this then that (https://ifttt.com) it’s worth looking at that too! Automated craziness!

Posted by Hillary Beck  | December 4, 2014 at 11:42AM | Reply

This is a very helpful article. Thank you. I also work from home and the lines between personal and business life can become very blurry. Since implementing OmniFocus and reading Premium Posts and Primer, my separation and efficiency have become much better. Again, thank you!

I have a separate desktops for business (PC) and home (Mac). I struggle because I can’t access OmniFocus from my business PC. Most of my business tasks are driven from my Outlook e-mail account. It would be nice to forward e-mail-generated tasks from Outlook into OmniFocus. I think there is a way to do this, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Can you help?

Posted by Ravonsheed Aaron  | November 29, 2011 at 7:30AM | Reply

Good article. When I read the social section I thought about the blurred lines when considering social media and social networking sites. Often people will mix business and personal and make it difficult to make a distinction. Therefore I think it’s important to use FB perhaps as the personal side and linkedIn or http://www.studentgenius.com as the professional side, as far as information is concerned.

Posted by Malan Darras  | November 9, 2011 at 5:19PM | Reply

nice article. this one is a big one for me. i have worked from home for the last 3-4 years and the two worlds (work and personal) have all but disappeared. It seems I can always find something to work on and put socializing farther and farther on the back burn as time goes by.

My biggest takeaway is #4 Don’t feel pressured to be always working. Downtime is good too.

Sometimes you forget how much more you can get done when you incorporate breaks… and vacations… 

Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 10, 2011 at 1:41PM

Yeah working from home can be challenging when you try to separate the two. Especially when you don’t have a separate office for “work”, then you make it really hard for yourself to make that mental distinction. What worked for me is to set aside a specific time to is considered work. Anything outside of that is personal.

And I definitely agree on the breaks. Even just taking a 10m break every hour and a half will help A LOT. And vacation? I’m not sure what that means. I might have to look that up ;)

Posted by AE Aaron  | November 11, 2011 at 12:06AM

Definitely book in a vacation.

I took 4 days off last month and left the laptop at home – went to the beach and just relaxed and did fun stuff for the whole time. No email, no IM, no business books…

Since getting back, I’ve probably done 3 times the amount of work I would normally do. And I’m super-motivated to do more.

Vacations = awesome in so many ways.

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