Work context, home context

Jul 10, 2022 · 1016 words · 5 minutes read

When I usually think about context in the meta, non-technical part of being a software engineer, I usually think of context switching and swapping your brain’s focus and working memory from one mode to another, switching from focused programming to a status meeting or trying to fit in a little coding time in the 30 minute blocks in between meetings.

Another aspect of context I’ve been thinking about recently is the separation of work context and home context. I do best when there are clear distinctions between the two, where there is a separate context for Work and a separate context for Life (or at least the important rest of life that isn’t about work). It makes it easier for me to get into work mode, and conversely, it makes it easier to transition out of work mode into non-work mode. It’s like the world’s simplest decision tree:

If I’m in my work context, do work things, otherwise, do non-work things.

This “in my work context” part is a little fuzzy these days, though. It had vanished for me two and a half years ago. In 2020, my wife and I were living in a 1-bedroom loft apartment in an urban area, close to the trains that brought me to the office. It was a smaller space, but we were used to spending a lot of time outside of it. When the forced WFH happened, it was suddenly not only my home space, but also my work space, recreation space, and really, my only space.

Since then, I’ve worked mostly remotely, and it has been an interesting exercise in exploring these contexts and their relationships with my work and life. I’ve found that physical boundaries help me better build mental boundaries, with one of the best improvements being when we moved to a 2-bedroom apartment and I was able to have a separate space to devote to a home office. I could even shut the door and not see my desk after hours or on the weekends. It’s a little funny to put it into words, but it’s really like I was fooling myself with some regressed object permanence; out of sight, out of mind!

I would be lying if I said every day was (or is) a good day, though. Especially during the early pandemic times when I was also facing school context, the ratio of good days to bad days fluctuated drastically. Some days it was easy to get it going, but there were other days where I wouldn’t really be able to get in the groove until the late afternoon, leading to a disruption of my normal hours and a clobbered work/life balance. Over time, as I better developed my tricks and habits (and got a second bedroom), the ratio improved, but I’ve been constantly on the lookout for both slippage and ways to improve it further.

There were a few periods where I had the option of heading back into the office, and after I did a few times, I was struck by how much it helped reinforce those boundaries. Although half of my days were spent catching up and drinking coffees, when it came to sitting down and getting some focused work done, it was easy. We were at work, so of course I would just knock out some work! I’m also fortunate enough to be able to slip into a focused mode with a pair of noise canceling headphones and some good music, even with a cluttered visual field, allowing even a noisy open office to exist outside of my little pond of stillness and focus. Even though the environment was much busier than my private office at home, it was the act of being in that environment itself that made it easier for it all to flow.

More importantly, though, I found that I was better able to leave work at work. I would log off, close the laptop, maybe leave it there, and walk out of the building. My commute was only around 30 minutes or so, a mix of walking and easy trains, letting my brain wander and gracefully transition away from the worries of work. I would sometimes still think about it, but there was a much cleaner break.

Oh, work? Yeah, I’ll deal with that when I’m back tomorrow.

I’ve since left that office job and started working fully remotely. Mindful of these mental tricks that help me effectively strike a good balance, I’ve deliberately focused on building up the physical barriers and routines that help. I have a dedicated bedroom office, strict hours, commute-like dog walks before and after work to clear the cobwebs, and a silly but strict policy of putting my work laptop away immediately after my workday is done.

For an extra step, I’ve recently started renting a private office in a local coworking space. It has been a great addition so far, giving me that additional physical separation of a place for work and a place for the rest of life. With a clearly dedicated space, people to talk to, and the extra physical context, it has reminded me of just how helpful the separation can be. Maybe someday I’ll be out in the countryside with a separate work/office shack I can retreat to during my work day, but for now, the private office is a wonderful balance for our current city living, and I’m excited to have that space and be a part of the community.

I’m always envious of the people that don’t need these extra steps to effectively strike healthy balances, but I know it’s harder for me. It has made me appreciate the wider range of working styles, and it has made me more skeptical of broad stroke declarations of How You Should Work, with the nuances showing themselves in the different experiences I’ve seen and had myself.

A big part of the game for me is to understand how my brain works, then work with it. For me, the physical context switching helps my brain, and I’ll be leveraging that as much as I can.