How to draw boundaries between work and home

In a nutshell?  "Make choices with confidence, focus on quality not quantity and respect the boundaries you agree so others respect them too."

Returning to work

6 Be deliberate about what you're doing - one thing at a time?

Being mindful or deliberate about what you are doing is particularly relevant if you don't make a clear distinction between work and home (for example, because you work from home some days or leave early and continue working in the evening). It's easy to slide into keeping your phone close and quickly check emails when you're playing with your child(ren) or taking a call whilst you get dinner ready thinking you are saving time. This fuzziness often leads to fatigue because your mind isn't wholly on one thing (mindfulness) - so it's better to step away to make the call/respond to an email then come back and focus on play again. Maybe the mantra is 'one thing at a time'?

Sue Arrowsmith Rodger
“I am much stricter with my hours since returning to work. Prior to maternity leave, I thought nothing of working late into the evening or at weekends. I am still happy to stay late or work weekends where circumstances dictate it, but not as a matter of course. I am aware that if I regularly work beyond my contracted hours, I am short-changing my family and also my free time, which means that I will be less relaxed and recharged when I return to work the next day.”

Sue Arrowsmith Rodger, partner, Pagan Osborne

“I make sure that the two hours between 6pm and 8pm are dedicated to my children each night. We eat together, spend time together and I put them to bed. If I have to do more work, I do it after 8pm. I don't stare at my phone and answer client emails whilst eating dinner. My clients know my personal circumstances and respect them. Given the type of law I do, this rarely causes a problem. I have had to give up hobbies because they ate into my family time, but I will get them back eventually.”

Lindsey Cartwright, partner, Morton Fraser

Katherine Allan
“Try to avoid important conference calls from home which would require your child to remain silent. It never works and leads to stress all round! Try to keep work and time with your child separate - resist the temptation to look at emails until your child is in bed.”

Katherine Allan, solicitor, RBS

7 Draw time boundaries around tasks at work and home

Whoever takes care of laundry in your house is unlikely to ever get to the bottom of the laundry basket and the same is true of an email inbox; items just keep coming. What can work better than trying to keep on top of everything, such as laundry and emails, can be to say you'll devote X many minutes to Y task. For example, 15 minutes for a call with a member of your team who needs your help instead of letting it go on for unlimited time; 18 minutes cleaning the kitchen instead of perfecting it in 35; 20 minutes reviewing a report for a colleague; limiting professional social events to two hours, once a month. Time boundaries focus your attention in a very specific way.

“I make sure I leave at 5pm and don't work late. I try and arrange as many meetings as I can for during the day and nothing after 3pm. If I have to work at home, I do it after the children are in bed.”

Solicitor, private practice

“I leave at the time required each day to get home in time. If I have to work late then I plan arrangements for that. Planning is essential. You have to remind yourself if you don't leave when planned, it has a knock-on effect for the rest of the night and you are compromising family time.”

Solicitor, private practice

“I try as much as possible to work hard and efficiently at work so that when I leave, I do not have to work later that night. When I do have to work later, I keep it to certain nights and hours. You need to be strict and do only want your work needs you to do - get rid of the optional extras.”

Lecturer, in-house, public sector

8 Set priorities for the week ahead and consider having a not-to-do list

Making superb use of your time happens when you're absolutely clear about what needs your attention and what can be done by someone else or not at all. It's worth writing a list of priorities for the week ahead and a not–to-do list might be helpful too if you're attempting to ditch certain things. The lists give a focus to the week and our peak concentration tends to be between 9-11am so that's the time to tackle the big-ticket items rather than working through simple five-minute tasks.

“When at work, try to concentrate 100% on that. Set boundaries on the hours you will/do. Be prepared to go the extra mile workwise when necessary, but be quietly firm that this will not be the norm. Be clear in yourself what your priorities are.”

Solicitor, private practice

9 Include me time and we time on your to-do lists

In the same place you write weekly to-do lists (a week-to-view diary is good as you can capture things for a specific week in the future), make room for domestic priorities and a list of things to do for your own personal pleasure (the so-called me time things and also we time - that vital time with your partner as well as your child(ren)). By including items such as go for a run, pilates, spin class, reading, call with best friend, dinner out with partner, you see yourself as being as important as work and domestic tasks.

10 Keep hands-off tasks that aren't yours

Now's the time to step back from micro-managing both at work and at home because it's not a great use of your time. It probably doesn't matter how well a domestic chore gets done (although when it gets done might matter - agree that with your partner in advance) so let your partner and other family members crack on in their own way.


Over to you

  1. If you were to underline three things from this guide, what would they be?
  2. How much time do you want to give to your child, your work, your partner, your interests and domestic tasks each week? What boundaries could you put in place to make it happen? 
  3. When's a good time to renegotiate roles at home and make changes? What are you going to stop, start and continue doing once you're back at work? You might want to write it down.... (Download a sample plan)

    StopStartContinue
    Domestic
    Ironing; putting washing machine on daily; going to the supermarket several times a weekPaying a cleaner; putting washing machine on every other day; online shop once a weekWalking the dog every morning
    Children
    Going to toddler groupsTaking Alex swimming on my day offSee ante-natal friends regularly
    Partner
    Doing his personal errands (dry cleaning etc)Having one night a week we eat dinner, just the two of us, without going back to our laptops afterwardsWith our sense of humour; be appreciative of one another
    Me
    Mid-morning gym classes; reading as much fictionRun once before work and once after work/weekYoga on Monday nights
  4. What flexible working practices would be useful? When will you discuss options with your line manager?

Further Resources

  • Also see the other 11 guides in our Parents in the Profession series
  • 21 ways to manage the stuff that sucks up your time by Grace Marshall (Discover Books, 2012)
  • Chapter Eight 'Do what it takes to thrive' in Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work by Jessica Chivers (Hay House, 2011)
  • Time Management for Manic Mums by Allison Mitchell (Hay House, 2006)