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4 Ways to Compartmentalize Work (When Boundaries are Vague)

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How to Set Better Work-Life Boundaries

With the onset of the pandemic and widespread remote work, the lines between “work time” and “home time” have never been blurrier. They are perforated at best and non-existent at worst., this is why finding ways to compartmentalize work is so key.

A lack of boundaries is really what makes compartmentalizing—or keeping work and home matters in their appropriate mental or emotional boxes—much more difficult.

This is even truer for Sensitive Strivers, those who are genetically predisposed to thinking and feeling everything more deeply. 

Without healthy ways to compartmentalize work, thinking deeply can quickly become overthinking, and you may find yourself spiraling down a negative thought cycle that’s hard to climb out of. 

Add to that the fact that you’re naturally more observant and self-aware to begin with, and the sudden uptick in insecurities you’re experiencing may make a lot more sense.

For example, if you’re always “on,” work becomes harder and more stressful because you’re never getting downtime to restore yourself. And your home life suffers because you’re never fully present.

The result? You feel bad for failing to show up the way you want in both contexts. 

While remote working is here to stay (at least for now), your stress doesn’t have to.

4 Ways to Compartmentalize Work and Experience Restorative Calm

1. Take the spotlight off your behavior. 

Let’s start with a mindset shift. Without the distractions of the office and spontaneous interactions with your colleagues, your mind has, in some ways, far less to occupy it and so it may fill in the gaps in an unhealthy way. You may find yourself obsessing over your weaknesses and inadequacies or exaggerating minor mistakes you make. This is a cognitive bias known in psychology as the spotlight effect.  

In reality, no one is actually paying as much attention to you as you think because they’re all so focused on their own work. So remove the spotlight and right-size your reaction. For example, if you’re beating yourself up for not speaking in one meeting, how likely is it that anyone actually noticed? Is it going to matter this time next week, next month, next year? If the answer is no, then it’s okay to let the situation go.

2. Develop an end-of-day ritual.

Without an obvious “finishing point,” like the end-of-day commute or post-work trip to the gym, it can be tricky to create a solid separation between your professional life and your home life. You may find your evening hours plagued by work worries. 

Trying to suppress these thoughts by sheer force of will only makes them stronger and leads to frustration. But developing a ritual to close your day is an effective way to restore a boundary. 

One exercise I share with my clients is something I call “the backpack strategy.” Think about taking all of the situations that happened during your workday and putting them in an imaginary backpack. Then shrug the backpack off your shoulders and place it in the corner, where it will stay overnight. Alternatively, grab a sheet of paper, draw a rectangle in the middle and write down your worries, thoughts, and stresses. Then tear up the paper and throw it away.  

3. Stop negative thought spirals.

Whenever you find yourself lost in negative thoughts—work-related or otherwise—you can use a thought-stopping technique to ease yourself out of that spiral. When the thought arises, firmly tell yourself, “stop,” or imagine a red stop sign in your head.

Then ask yourself,

“How much is this thought serving me right now?”

“What’s a different thought that does serve me?”

“How can I focus on what’s in my control right now?

Or you could try catching the thought and picturing it floating away as a balloon or as leaves in a stream. This helps you bring your mind back to the present moment so you can concentrate on your family, your hobbies, or your evening relaxation.

4. Find a healthy distraction.

If you find yourself reaching for your phone to steal a glance at your emails right before bed, redirect your attention toward reading fiction or a magazine instead. Remember that the stimulus you put in dictates what comes back out, so choose a distraction that will actually calm your mind. Scrolling social media or reading a work-related book probably aren’t ideal choices.

We’re likely to be living with blurred boundaries for some time. Finding healthy ways to compartmentalize work will continue to be crucial, especially for Sensitive Strivers. Making a concerted effort to experience calmer will help you be more creative, productive, and successful.

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers overcome insecurity and overwhelm so they can thrive in the workplace.

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