How To Leave Work at Work (so You Can Actually Be at Home)
Two rituals to help cultivate work/life boundaries
What would it mean to leave work at work and be fully present at home?
My husband and I fall into a recurring pattern that leads to arguments. It usually goes something like this: I arrive home at 6:30 or 7 p.m. He is already cooking dinner since he gets home earlier than me. I have just come home from a day teaching children with autism who have severe behavioral issues.
There is a lot of joy and laughter at my job, but there is inevitably also crying, screaming, flailing, flopping to the floor, and often self-injurious behavior, such as children banging their heads against the table or forcing themselves to throw up in order to avoid certain activities. I’ve also been hit, bit, and had to barricade myself behind a table to avoid a client seriously hurting me.
I return home carrying all of these memories, experiences, and feelings of stress, anger, and confusion. I’m also relieved to be home. I drop my bag, say hello to my husband, and kiss him. Then I immediately look at what he’s cooking. In my cloud of overwhelm I feel a desperate urge to control something tangible. I am a cookbook author and very good at cooking, so I’ll make a comment that I believe is helping. “Why are you cooking the onions like that?” I’ll ask. Or, “It looks like the rice is burning.” Or, “I’d turn up the heat if I were you.” My husband, of course, experiences this as criticism. He pushes back, and then I get defensive, and then we spend the night fighting.
I realized in the last few months that much of this could be alleviated if I allowed myself to actually arrive home—if I could acknowledge my feelings before entering the domestic space I share with another. If I paused to notice my body, I would notice that I am upset, and then could try to avoid displacing that feeling on minor details of meal preparation.
I believe that being a responsive and kind partner means leaving work at work, and being fully invested at work depends on being fully present at home. They are inextricably connected; without rest, there can be no work, and without home, there can be no office. To have this, there needs to be a clear boundary between the outside world and what goes on inside the home.
In my quest for establishing clear work/home boundaries, I have developed these rituals for both leaving and arriving at home.
Why a Ritual?
Rituals have been used across cultures and spiritual traditions to help actualize intentions and goals. They are ways to create meaning and mark transitions. Rituals are interspersed into our daily secular lives in ways we may not even notice: beginning a baseball game with the national anthem, for example, or singing “happy birthday.”
I trained as a Buddhist nun for many years in Japan, and my life in the monastery was a succession of almost constant ritual. Surprisingly, there is actually no word in Japanese for “ritual.” The closest word with corresponding meaning is gyoji, which simply means “activity”. When we woke up in the morning, we bowed three times and said a gatha before putting away our sleeping mats. Gatha are short Buddhist verses that are recited to help honor and mark daily activities such as bathing, washing the face, eating, brushing teeth, and even using the toilet.
I grew up in a Northern California family in which many of the women identified as pagan. By the time I became a Buddhist nun, I was already accustomed to lighting candles and doing rituals (I’m pretty clear now that Buddhist gatha are basically spells!). So, these rituals are a mixture of both my training as a Buddhist nun as well as my love of wild nature spirituality.
Below are the personal rituals I developed to mark my transition between work and home. These two rituals are meant to fit together, but feel free to modify them to your own needs.
Ritual for leaving work at work
First, you will need to buy or acquire a small bottle or box that you will only use for this activity, and that can stay at your office on your desk, or at another designated workspace. I personally like small glass bottles with cork stoppers, the kind that can be purchased at herbal medicine stores. But it can really be any kind of container: an empty perfume bottle, a mason jar, a jewelry box. It’s helpful to find something physically attractive that isn’t used for another purpose—probably not a used soda bottle or lunch container.
When it’s time to leave work, sit at your desk (or wherever you end your workday) with the bottle in front of you. Close your eyes and feel your body sitting on the chair. Allow whatever thoughts and worries the day has produced to play out in your mind — the annoying email, your anxiety about your boss, your plans for next week, the details of your current work project. Bring all of it into your sphere of awareness, along with any feelings associated with these thoughts: worry, stress, anger, annoyance, confusion, insecurity.
Feel all of those feelings in your body. Are they hot or cold? Do they have a shape, or a color?
Now imagine that all of those thoughts and feelings have left your body and have formed a swirling blue (or black, or any other color) tornado around you. Breathe deeply and notice the intensity of the swirl. Maybe the tornado has a voice, echoing your deepest insecurities or replaying the day’s conversations. Imbue the tornado with whatever you are feeling — stress, worry, etc. — and visualize it swirling around you, commingling with the thoughts of the day.
Open the lid of your container and hold it in your hands. Take a few moments to just feel it in your hands while you are aware of the tornado around you. Then, imagine the tornado coalescing into something more solid, like a blanket or ribbon. Guide this shape and funnel it into the bottle. Visualize the ferocity of the tornado collecting and pooling into this small, solid space. When all of the thoughts and emotions are inside the bottle, put the lid on.
Open your eyes and put the bottle into a drawer or on a shelf. Pause for one moment and breathe. Acknowledge that these thoughts are only going away temporarily. You are not “shelving” them forever. Then recite this verse, either out loud or in your head:
I set my duties down here
Honoring their importance
With my distance and rest
When you arrive at work the next day, take the bottle off the shelf or out of the drawer.
Creating an explicit, tangible separation between work and home is important, even if only on the symbolic level. In psychological terms, the unconscious— the part of ourselves that we aren’t aware of, which shows up in dreams and fantasies — can’t tell the difference between symbol and reality. Even if you are not “doing” anything in a ritual, the symbolic meaning sends a message to your unconscious that, in this case, work is going to stay at work. As the Jungian therapist Robert Johnson writes, “The unconscious speaks in symbols, not to confuse us, but simply because that is its native idiom.” It follows, then, that the way to speak to our unconscious mind is through symbols as well.
Ritual for arriving home
To prepare for this, you will need to obtain three items: something symbolizing work, such as a business card, something you associate with home, such as a picture of your family, and a small stone (or, a figure from a board game, etc).
The work/home symbols can be whatever you feel like, whatever works for you, as long as they are small enough to fit onto a small, flat surface. You could also just use two bowls of different colors and pick one to represent work and one to represent home.
Find a designated area in your room with a flat surface where these three items can stay undisturbed (it will be helpful to let your spouse or roommates know what you’re doing). It’s nice to beautify this space a bit by laying down a cloth, but the area could simply be the undecorated top of your dresser.
Place the work/home items across and a few inches from each other. Whenever you leave for work, place the stone on top of the work symbol (or inside the bowl, if you are using one). Leaving the house, you probably turn off the lights and lock the door (rituals!). The idea here is to create a kind of work/home “switch” for your brain. When you leave for work, turn work “on” by placing the stone on the work symbol, like moving a toggle bar to the right.
The actual ritual goes like this: when you arrive home from work, before you interact with anyone, go to your room and change clothes. Clothes are markers of our social roles; we say “dress for the job you want” because clothes have the uncanny power to make ourselves behave and be treated in certain ways. Even if you wear casual clothes to work, change into something different that you don’t wear to work.
Next, do some big movement. Personally, after a long commute on a cramped subway or car, I feel like a caged animal, and can’t relax at home until I’ve opened up that constricted feeling inside me. Put on some dance music and spend a minute or two dancing as big and wild as you can. It hardly matters what the movement is, just move: jumping jacks, a few yoga poses, whatever feels good and gets the blood flowing.
When this is done, lie on the ground and close your eyes. Feel your body against the floor and notice where they make contact. Feel the new energy swirling around in your body, your heart pumping at an elevated rate, the way it feels to breathe after moving. There may be quite a lot of sensations stirred up by the movement. Breathe into it and allow it to exist as it is. Then, slowly and gently, direct the kinetic energy to the place where your body meets the earth. Feel the solid earth beneath you as all of this energy from moving sinks through your body and is held by the floor.
Rest here as the ground holds you.
Finally, stand up and face your work/home symbols. As if interacting with a toggle bar, move the stone from “work” to “home.” Breathe and notice your body. If you live with loved ones, call them to your mind. Feel your love for them and your desire to connect authentically. Then recite, either out loud or in your head:
I leave the outside outside
Entering my domestic life
With presence and kindness
How to Make Rituals Effective in Practice
These techniques arose somewhat naturally out of my need to create boundaries with a stressful work environment. Without some form of exercise directly following work, I could not relax. I knew I was stressed, but everything that was supposed to help me calm down — meditation, lavender-scented baths, television, etc. — made me feel even more trapped and caged. Dancing energetically as soon as I arrived home helped shake off my tension and the frenzied, cramped feeling of a long commute. It enabled me to transition into my evening.
Over time, I expanded this dancing ritual to the longer, more extensive rituals I describe above. Today, I find the exercise of visualizing feelings flowing into a bottle to be useful in a wide variety of contexts in which emotions are flowing intensely; after therapy, for example, or after a hard conversation with a friend, boss, or spouse.
The first day I attempted this ritual at work, I forgot to bring a special bottle, so I just used a Tylenol bottle! Although I recommend using a beautiful container for this ritual, you can really use anything.
While it may seem like I am recommending you literally “bottle up” your feelings, just remember that you can re-open the bottle at any time. The point is not to repress emotion but recognize that certain emotions have a time and a place.
Additionally, although these rituals seem like spells, they are not, well, “magic”. Just because I visualize my thoughts and emotions flowing into a bottle doesn’t suddenly make repetitive thought patterns go away! Oftentimes, when I was first beginning these practices, I found that once I got to the lying on the floor part of the ritual for arriving home, my brain was still buzzing with thoughts from work.
Work obsessions have real urgency. In Buddhism, we speak about “planning mind” — the habit of our brains to be perpetually trying to control and manage the future. I am not going to tell you there is no place for planning, just that we can reduce their urgency by giving them a physical shape and container.
For myself, when I felt overwhelmed by my “planning mind” during arriving home, I gave myself permission to sit up and write a to-do list for the next day. I wrote it down on an actual piece of paper and placed it next to the work symbol on my altar. Then I returned to lying down and feeling myself arrive. After I moved the stone to the “home” position, I could give myself more permission to be at home, knowing that my to-do list for tomorrow was waiting for me.
Even with these rituals, I sometimes still think about work at home. But this is natural. Our brains think thoughts; that’s what they do. The point is not to eliminate work stress in one fell swoop, or get rid of thinking entirely, but to get into a habit of ceremoniously breaking from work identity.
With repetition, I found that these rituals helped me compartmentalize, and helped me move on from working thoughts faster than if I hadn’t done anything. In other words, they helped me get unstuck faster. If, after performing these steps, I still thought about work, I could remind myself, “Those thoughts belong in the bottle. You can take them out tomorrow.” Or, “You have already made a to-do list and can pick it up later. The ‘home’ switch is on right now.” Just being able to link my thoughts and emotions to a physical entity helped me return to whatever I was doing at home.
Honoring Your Home and Work Boundaries
Within capitalism, as within any culture or system made by humans, rituals and symbols are everywhere. Even the stock market opens with a ceremonial ringing of a bell.
The above rituals are meant to be simple and easy and to fit into your daily routine without too much disruption. They employ symbols to mark the important transition between work and home. They are a way to focus our intention in a tangible, physical way.
We honor and prioritize work by honoring and prioritizing time away from work. The two cannot exist without each other, just like day cannot exist without night. I hope these activities help you fully arrive home, so that you can, in turn, work with your whole, best self.