Work / Flow

How to Successfully Shift From “Work Mode” to “Family Mode”

Especially when working from home, this transition is tough. There are no easy answers. But there are several best practices to employ.

One of my many 4 a.m. fears as a parent is that my daughter’s early recollection of me will be of my face, lit up from my laptop screen, always working. I’m not literally losing sleep over this, but it’s true that as work-from-home has become a way of life over the last few years, it’s blurred the line between our duties as parents and employees. The added flexibility of the work-from-home movement is revolutionary for many reasons, including how it enables more working parents to be with their families. But experts agree that there are many times that it doesn’t feel great. “We’ve all had the experience where we’re not fully present as a father because we’re thinking about work and vice versa,” says executive coach Ian Sanders, author of 365 Ways To Have a Good Day. “There are no magic wands for putting boundaries around family life and work life,” says Sanders. It just takes effort and focus. Here’s how to flip the work and home switch.

1. Build Transitions into Your Day

In three different conversations with three different work-life balance experts, I heard one piece of advice three times. To prevent the whiplash that occurs when you step between work and home modes, you need to build in a transition — something that replaces the mental decompression granted by a commute. “Bookend your day with two 15-minute walks around your block, or read a chapter of a book — anything that helps you be present and get focused on what’s next, whether it’s work or home life,” says Kaylee Hackney, an employee well-being expert and Assistant Professor at the Baylor University. Whatever it is, stick to it to ensure you have some routine that lets you know that “Okay, I’m not at the office anymore.”

2. Get a Room

Some unsurprising news: Both your work and home lives will be better served if you have a dedicated workspace, whether it’s a full-on home office or even a glorified closet. And the benefits aren’t all about eliminating distractions. “When your kids see you in your workspace, they have a better sense that you’re in work mode,” says Hackney. “You’re sending a signal to your brain by being there, too, and at the end of the day, you can shut the door and not have to be reminded of work every time you walk by it.”

3. Manage Your Notifications

We’re in an alert boom. There’s that text thread where the neighbors are talking about what went down on Friday night. There’s another where your buddies send the strangest memes. Not to mention, there are the non-urgent messages from your school’s PTA, your kid’s aftercare program, and their sports team, sent on apps like Konstella, GroupMe, and more. Consider silencing many of these alerts during your work hours to maintain your focus, and consider replying to texts at just a few distinct times during a day. Time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders does: “I have a strategy where I go through all the text messages from the prior day once in the morning, and if I haven’t responded yet I do. And then I don’t really answer personal texts until after work,” she says. The reverse goes for work communications, she says: “You don’t want to be giving your kid a bath while your smartwatch buzzes about some report, taking you out of the moment.”

4. Close Out Your Workday with Rituals

Instead of simply wandering away from your screen when the workday is done, go through a checklist. Write down what you didn’t get done today and what will carry over to tomorrow. Scan your email or your Slack and quickly respond to the messages that truly need it. By tying up loose ends and doing some basic planning for the morning, you’re doing two things: giving yourself some ease of mind when heading into family time, and ensuring that you’ll hit the ground running in the morning. “It makes being present with your family a lot easier,” says Sanders, who adds one element: “The Germans have this expression called the ‘Feierabend,’ where you crack open a beer at the end of the workday. It’s a signal. If that’s not your thing, find a ritual that resonates with you.”

5. If You Have to Work at Night, Establish Guardrails

Chances are, you steal away to the office (or couch) in the evenings to do deep work. Many of us have added such “night shifts” in the last few years, necessitated by daytime hours spent on parenting tasks. This may have to happen occasionally. But experts warn to not make it a routine. “You want to set limits. One or two nights a week, maybe two hours, not messing around,” says Saunders. “Otherwise, it’s a recipe for burnout.”

6. Be Realistic

If you have work to do on the weekend but don’t want to take time away from your family, you might mentally underestimate it. You’ll just find some quiet time on the fly, right? Wrong. As the weekend unfolds, time evaporates. You have other tasks to do. And once you do jump into your work, you realize that what you wanted to get done might take you six or seven hours instead. Saunders refers to this as magical thinking. “It’s common. But reality always wins.” If you don’t want to spend time away from your family working on the weekend, then you might need to start being brutally honest about your schedule and your workload, reprioritizing and weeding out tasks. “It’s doable,” says Saunders. “It just takes a lot of intention on the part of a parent.”