How I’ve Learned To Mentally Separate Work From Home When Living (And Working) In A Small Space

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It’s a dilemma that every self-employed work-from-home entrepreneur or freelancer has faced.

Now, it’s something that the human population who made it out of 2020 also probably remembered. How do you move from personal-life mode to work-mode and back to personal-life mode when you’re forced to do it all from home?

Specifically, how is a separation possible when that ‘home’ consists of a small space?

It’s definitely not an easy endeavor, and although I’m writing an article about this right now, I will admit that I still struggle with it from time to time.

But after working as a self-employed freelancer and entrepreneur for the past two years (many of those months from small spaces), I’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to transition between work mode and non-work mode.

I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t (for me), and how to get back on track with small wins on days that I stubbornly ignore my own advice.

Here’s what worked for me: Keep the bed for relaxation and pleasure except in exceptional circumstances, use physical activity to break up my day, and create artificial separation when physical separation isn’t possible.

Here’s what didn’t work for me: Being overly strict about work hours, schedules, and compartmentalization

Disclaimer—I’m not you, and you’re not me, so what works for me might be the worst thing in the world for you, and vice versa.

But if this is something that you’re currently struggling with and you think that reading about someone else’s experience might help you, feel free to try any of the hacks that I’ve listed. Just take it with a grain of salt. Please.

My no.1 essential for working from home, especially during a frigid, cold snowy day.

Lesson One: Keeping The Bed Mostly For Pleasure And Relaxation

I say mostly because I’m not too fond of absolutes, as I will elaborate later in the article.

The pandemic has forced us all to be flexible and work with what we’ve got. And for some of us, the bed is the only place to get our work done, whether it’s because we live in a tiny studio apartment or because we’re sharing our space with others and the kitchen table is just not big enough to fit all our laptops.

Or maybe we need some peace and quiet, and our bedroom is the only place that we can get that (I relate, I’ve done countless zoom calls from my bed for that very reason). Or maybe, there are days when you just want to work from bed. Hey I get it, when the weather is gloomy and your mental health is a little bit low, sometimes a day in bed is what your soul needs. But you still need to get your work done, so the compromise is working in bed. I’ve done it too.

In saying that, I have found that making sure my bed is mostly used for pleasure and relaxation has been highly beneficial for my mental health.

How I prefer to use the bed most of the time (when I’m not sleeping in it)

I think of it like the 80/20 rule that nutrition experts like to tout when it comes to healthy eating. The idea is that 80% of your diet should come from nutrient-dense, whole-food sources, and the other 20% can come from your favorite indulgence.

I think there’s a reason why this approach hasn’t gone in and out of style, unlike certain fad diets. It doesn’t restrict you from consuming the foods you might love but don’t have a lot of nutritional value.

I think the same principle can be applied when working from bed.

By not working in bed 80% of the time, I’m not making it a habit and my de facto work-from-home spot. But I also know there are some days where I will either want or have to work from bed, and I don’t beat myself up or worry that I’m excessively straining my neck and lumbar spine—because it’s not an everyday thing.

I’m not going to go on about the physical and psychological impacts of working from bed because chances are you already know it’s not great for you.

What I will say is that when I deviate from my 80/20 rule, I notice my sleep starts to suffer, which in turn impacts my physical and mental health, and work/life separation becomes impossible.

That’s because my brain starts to associate the bed with work, so when I finish a hard day of work, it refuses to decompress.

Lesson Two: Using Physical Activity To Break Up The Day

This brings me to my next point. On days where I spend part of my days working from bed, I transition between work mode to home mode by utilizing some sort of physical activity. It doesn’t have to be strenuous.

Chances are, if I’m working from bed, my body is not in a position to be doing hill sprints or squat my bodyweight. I also tend to it keep it short—10 or 15 minute mobility work or static stretching, a walk, light resistance training with bands. This seems to tell my brain that I can stop finessing my pitch or obsessing over comments from editors, and I can come back to bed fully relaxed and in home mode, rather than work mode.

Now, even on days I don’t work from bed (which is most often), physical activity is still a great transition, and the beautiful thing is that it works both ways. I can use it to get myself laser-focused if I’m distracted, and I can also use it to end my workday and relax my body.

Now, I’m not a fitness expert, and there is absolutely no science to this. I have found that moderate to high impact cardio has helped me concentrate. In contrast, heavy resistance training and active recovery have been great at helping me relax and wind down. So on my cardio days (2x a week), I tend to do my workout in the morning, and my heavy resistance training (3-4x week) and active recovery days (1-2x a week), I schedule them towards the end of the day.

Going for a walk at the end of the work day.

Sometimes, I’ve also scheduled them in the middle of the day if I’m having a tough time mentally or if I get writer’s block and I feel the need to get away from whatever I’m doing. In this instance, I have found that the exercise I do doesn’t matter; provided that I don’t go too hard I need to lay in bed afterwards. Exercise serves as a respite from whatever it is I’m doing.

Lesson Three: Create Artificial Separation When Physical Separation Isn’t Possible

During the time I’ve been a self-employed freelancer and entrepreneur, I’ve lived in a spacious loft apartment with a mezzanine bedroom, small one-bedroom apartments, and a not-so-spacious studio.

In some spaces (like the loft), I could achieve physical separation by having a separate working and dining table (both large enough for my husband and I to use comfortably at the same time).

Other spaces, like the small studio, don’t really allow for much physical separation. I mean, there was a divider between the bed area and the kitchen, but the space could only fit one small dining table, and only one person can really use it.

A divider that acts as (somewhat) of a physical separation between the bedroom area and the kitchen/dining/work area

So when physical separation isn’t possible, and going out to a co-working space or cafe to work isn’t an option, artificial separation can go a long way. For me, the best artificial separation has been having a “work” outfit (a.k.a anything that isn’t sweatpants), and a “home” outfit (a.k.a. sweatpants and one of my husband’s t-shirts that shrunk a little too much but is still comfortably baggy for me).

Sometimes I take it up a notch and do my hair and make-up. The act of changing into comfortable clothes, along with removing my make-up and washing my face serves as a kind of wind-down routine and allows my brain to slow down.

There are other ways to create artificial separation—if you have several electronic devices, for example, maybe you can keep your laptop for work and your tablet/tv for entertainment. When I got myself a new laptop, I kept using my old one for Netflix and non-work-related stuff until it was no longer feasible to do so (a.k.a. it finally decided to break down).

Now, I’m thinking of investing in a tablet because that separation was super beneficial to me. Not only did it help me mentally separate work from non-work, but it also kept me focused because if I wanted to watch a YouTube video or go online window-shopping, I had to use another device.

Lesson Four: Don’t Get Too Hung Up On Schedules And Compartmentalization

Funnily enough, one thing that has helped me the most was not trying so hard to compartmentalize my ‘work’ self from my ‘home’ self.

At the beginning of my freelance career, I was super strict with keeping a 9 to 5 schedule—never working from bed, and only going to the gym or running errands outside ‘work hours’ or during lunch breaks. 9 to 5 ended up as 9 to whenever, and then I found that I was spending my weekends and ‘non-work’ running errands and doing life-admin.

I was feeling pretty burnt out, and then at the urging of a friend I decided to take a half-day on a Friday to do something I consider frivolous yet relaxing (I got a mani-pedi).

The world didn’t end (this was pre-COVID), I still met my deadlines, my clients didn’t stop giving me work. But because I gave myself permission to take half the day off, I was able to relax fully. Whereas if I still had my strict mentality, I would have spent that time in the nail salon feeling guilty, which would have carried on until the weekend and on to Monday morning.

Another example was when my good luck of dodging COVID-19 ran out, and Omicron hit my husband and I like a ton of bricks. It was unexpected, and because I was a little low on cashflow that month (#freelancewriterproblems), I had to keep writing because the earlier I file a story, the earlier an editor makes their edits, which typically means the earlier they publish and thus the earlier I can invoice and get paid.

I broke every rule by working from bed, often in home clothes, and had to take long naps between editing paragraphs. Was it the most productive or ergonomic? Hell no. Did it slow down my recovery? possibly. Was it the most optimal arrangement for my mental health? Definitely not.

I would have loved to turn off all electronic devices and stay in bed eating chicken soup for as long as the stupid virus inhabited my body.

Sometimes, I break my own rule and work from bed because #mentalhealth

But given the circumstances I was in, that was the best I could do, so I rolled with it. And I don’t regret it, I was fortunate to make a full recovery, and I filed the story I needed to file and got the money I needed in time to pay bills that month.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that separating work from home involves accepting that sometimes, it’s just not possible to do so, and that’s okay.

But on days where it is possible, then it’s good to have practices that allow you to be the most comfortable ‘work’ self, and the most relaxed ‘home’ self. Hopefully, some of these tips that have helped me can also help you make that mental separation.

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