Q: I work remotely from my home, and the isolation and loneliness are really getting me down. I’m also fairly new to my city and have two young kids, and I don’t have any close friends I can socialize with after hours. I’ve tried to find a job that will allow me to work on site, but I live in a city with a tourist economy, and there are literally zero jobs where I can earn a comparable income and work in an office.
I try to spend time in coffee shops and other “co-located” spaces as much as possible, but my job requires me to spend so much time on the telephone that I often need to be in a quieter space to get things done. Do you have any suggestions to help combat the loneliness and isolation? I feel like I’ve tried all of the typical options and am looking for some outside-of-the-box advice to help brighten my workdays. — Sarah, St. Petersburg, Florida
Q: After four years of my working from home, the thrill of the perks (no more commute! no more business casual!) have worn off, and I find myself unable to separate work from just living. This state of constant multitasking has me exhausted, and I feel like everything is turning into one big blur of errands and emails. What are some strategies to help separate work from life when you work from home? — Teresa, West New York, New Jersey
A: This is an advice column, not a matchmaking service, but were it not for the 1,100 miles separating your homes and my lack of an expense account, I would force you to sit in a room together and solve this for each other. You share the same problem — and it is not the fact that you work from home.
You’re relying on your job for too much of your life fulfillment.
Look, I get it: You and your student loans scratched and clawed your way to a position that pays well enough and doesn’t make you totally miserable and perhaps even sounds a little impressive to your mom’s friends, and now a stranger on the internet is telling you that you’ve been duped into believing that any of it matters, and that the real path to happiness involves macramé or jujitsu or intensive Torah study. But duped you have been!
Sarah, you are romanticizing office life far more than any cheesy movie about a co-worker meet-cute. I am writing this at noon from my 200-person office. Here’s the extent of my human interactions with colleagues so far today:
— I told someone his new hair color looks good; he thanked me.
— I said “good morning” to the only guy who got to the office before me; he repeated the greeting and we exchanged two sentences of banter about the NBA playoffs.
— A woman I work closely with waved to me, silently, while on the phone.
That’s it! Every other conversation has happened on Slack. Does your company use Slack, the messaging service that has replaced face-to-face communication? It is mostly a waste of time and also, according to nearly every remote worker I know, a total sanity saver because it allows you to discuss “Chernobyl” and swap dumb jokes with someone other than your dog or your toddler. If you spend much of your workday on the phone, taking your calls near other humans is not going to make you feel any less isolated, but an occasional videoconference meeting and a virtual place to drop in tweets that enrage you will help break up the day.
But when you’re looking for “outside-the-box” advice, you need a bigger fix than a chat room. Your job is not your life, and the question you need to ask yourself is not “How do I improve my job?” but “How do I improve my life?” Your loneliness is a real problem, and a common one. But the real problem underlying that real problem is that you see no opportunity for fulfillment outside work.
Adjusting to life in a new city is difficult, and parenting two small hellions is almost unfathomably difficult, so it’s not tough to see how dealing with both of those things at once could make you despair that you’ll ever escape your home again. But you are in desperate need of friends and hobbies and fortheloveofgod an occasional baby sitter so you can connect with real live adults in a far deeper way than water-cooler chat allows.
Meet-up groups feel corny, but they’re an effective way to meet people who share your interests. Even a play date with a family from your child’s preschool class would give you a chance to hang out with other adults for a change while your kids play with finger paints or Fortnite.
Which brings us to you, Teresa. The way to better separate your work life from your home life is simply to do more things outside work. Here’s a foolproof strategy to stop you from answering emails: Use your hands for other things so you physically can’t answer emails! Take a class in pottery or Mandarin or Sicilian cooking. Start lifting weights and get super strong so you can fight bad guys if it ever comes to that (laughs nervously). Volunteer for any cause you care about. Make dates with your friends, or make new friends who share your interest in Mandarin or bad-guy-fighting and schedule dates with them. Have more sex!
The combination of pocket computers, Twitter, overbearing bosses, the Protestant work ethic and, yes, Slack conspires to obliterate any boundaries between your work life and the rest of it. This is 10 times as true if you do your job from home, which means you’ll need a concrete plan and a commitment to self-discipline. Make a space where you do nothing but your job, even if it’s a folding desk in a corner of your studio apartment; set business hours; and avoid running errands during your workday or answering emails during your down time whenever possible. And then: Do other things.
Even if you don’t have kids, financial limitations, exhaustion and the need to finally binge-watch “Russian Doll” will preclude you from doing things every evening. But even doing things once or twice a week will help retrain your brain to think of time outside work as time you spend on interests outside your job. So go forth and figure out what your interests are. Thank me by sending me your first macramé plant holder.
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.