The Perks of Clean Lines

As I get ready to start graduate school I’ve been thinking a lot about how I manage my time and attention. I’ve been soliciting advice from other people who have gone through graduate school and the most common piece of advice I’ve received is to set limits. There is always more writing to do, another article to read, and more work to do when you’re a grad student. If I don’t set limits then I’m sure to be consumed.


The best way to set limits is to have what I call “hard lines” between the different modes of my life. By clearly defining work and relaxation as separate modes of being I can make sure I’m using my attention appropriately for each. You can even take the idea of hard lines further to the different kinds of work that I do throughout the day. Instead of having my attention bleed like a Sharpie on tissue paper, I want to keep my attention as fully and properly engaged as possible.

Luckily, my experience as a self-employed writer and coach the past several months has taught me some things about creating clear boundaries. On days that I clearly define the boundaries between my work and the rest of my life, I seem to get more done and feel better about it. On the days where my work and the rest of my life bleed together like mashed potatoes and gravy tend to result in much less getting done. Boundaries help us get in the correct mental framework to get work done and approach the various aspects of our life in the most intelligent way possible.


The problem, however, is that boundaries are becoming more and more scarce. Some people have a natural boundary when they leave their house in the morning and commute to an office. However, more and more people lack even this most basic distinction. Even people who work and live in different locations often carry a smart phone that keeps them constantly in some sort of work mode even when at home.

In my own experience, I discovered that because I use my laptop for both work and much of my leisure activities I sometimes have trouble defining a barrier between relaxation time and time to work. It gets even worse when I try to be productive in the same place I go to relax. In college, I quickly discovered that I could never do anything productive in my dorm room. I always seemed to be in “fun” mode in my dorm room even though that’s where my desk was and where, logically, it would have been easiest to do much of my homework.

As the boundaries between our different modes crumble around us, what can we do to rebuild them?

There are three different avenues we can take when seeking to create the hard lines that let us be productive as well as allow us to switch off.


  1. Physical space: If possible, try to have the space that you play and work be different from each other. That doesn’t mean you need to pack up and hit the cafe every time you want to do some work. I had a home office where I used the main desk for playing on my computer and a small desk on the other side of the room for focused work. I knew that when I took those several steps across the room and sat down at the “work desk” it was time to get down to business. Experiment with different spaces where you find it easier to be productive and try to keep that place “sacred.”

  2. Digital space: The internet is awesome. It holds most of the information and resources I need to write engaging and interesting articles. Unfortunately, it is also a treasure trove of kitten pictures. It can be tough to work when I know I could be giggling at funny pictures with two simple clicks of my mouse. To get around that, I use a software to remove the temptation, such as SelfControl. Another strategy I’ve used is to create a new account on my computer that I only used for doing productive work. Switching over to that account was like flipping a switch in my brain.

  3. Mental space: Lastly, differentiating your mental space is kind of a combination of physical and digital space. One way I can set up my mental space to differentiate work from play or writing time from research time is what I call “start up” and “shut down” routines. I try to start and end my work day the same way every day. I may still be using my computer after my shut down routine but executing that routine lets me know that I have switched over to a different mode. Try developing a start up ritual that lets you know you’ve started work and a different ritual that signifies the end of your work day. Let those be the hard lines between work and play.

By differentiating the aspects between and within each of these spaces we can create the hard lines that let us do better work more efficiently.

Do you create hard lines between your different modes? If so, how do you do it? Share your strategies in the comments.