The Department of Psychology at HELP University, Malaysia, brings you our ‘5 Keys Series’ providing five practical tips on five topics to help you stay mentally, emotionally and physically strong. Drawing on evidence-based psychology, you can be sure of getting 5-star quality insight and guidance from HELP University: the university of achievers.

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Working from home offers a lot of benefits. With no morning commute, we have some extra time for exercise (or sleep); our schedule becomes flexible; there are no office distractions; and we get the chance to wear comfier clothes.

(That said, do remember to dress up if you’re taking part in formal online meetings. Clients and other stakeholders might not share the same enthusiasm for your Superman PJs…)

While there are perks to working from home, there are also some disadvantages. In this article, we’ll focus on the challenge some of us might face in establishing boundaries between work and home life when the two become housed under the same roof.
On that note, let’s dive right into five tips for you to protect your free time after the work day is done.

Consciously create your boundary The commute home from the office normally offers you literal and psychological distance from work. Working from home doesn’t allow for that, and so it’s important to consciously create that psychological distance. When your office hours are done, do an activity that you enjoy as a way of “clocking off” from work. I like to spend 30 minutes playing my guitar, and you can do whatever helps you to unwind. There are some relaxing games to play online, if that’s your thing; you can listen to your favourite music or read a good book; paint or draw; make use of apps that help you to relax; or, spend time playing with your dog. Whatever your preference, doing something that you enjoy will help put that boundary in place between work and leisure time.

Block off your time It’s important to protect your time; if you don’t, others will make use of it. You can do this explicitly, marking off your free time on Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar. You can also limit the time you communicate on work-related matters after hours. Unless it’s an emergency, work can wait until the next day. If you find that you feel guilty or unsure about keeping time for yourself, imagine yourself as a friend you’re trying to help. What would you say to them? “You should just keep working until you drop!” Probably not. You’d likely advise that they should be kind to themselves — they deserve it after all that hard work. And so do you.

Learn to say “No” From a young age, we’re conditioned to please people and put the needs of others before our own. On the surface, this sounds noble (and the intention often is). However, by saying “Yes” to every request you receive, you’ll risk burning yourself out. This is why it’s important to learn to say “No”, because when you protect your free time, you’re able to re-energise and then give the best of yourself to others. As the saying goes, you can’t pour tea from an empty pot. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should decline everything. Rather, it’s about being mindful of what you’re able to do and are comfortable doing in your own time. Choosing to say “No” to additional commitments that you’re not comfortable taking on is a powerful way to protect your time. Check out this short video for some tips on learning how to say “No”.

Embrace your emotions It’s not easy to say “No” to people, and sometimes you might feel guilty for doing so. When this happens, it increases the chances of you giving up your free time (when you don’t want to), as age-old conditioning kicks in. Feel free to try the following trick that I find very effective. When your mind says, “How selfish of you. How can you say no? All you’re doing is sitting around, anyway!”, reply to it by saying, “Thanks for your opinion, mind. For now, I’m going to relax for now and spend some time doing things I enjoy, so that I can be at my best for others later on.” Rather than fighting against your thoughts (it results in a tiring struggle) make room for them to come and go. Recognise that you’re in control of what you need to do, not your fleeting thoughts.

Savour your free time In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware explores the most common regrets shared by elderly patients during her years as a palliative carer. These five regrets came up time and again, and they teach us an important lesson: the time we have is to be savoured more than “used”. Our work and other commitments are important, but our lives encompass so much more. Make sure to savour, in the moment, time spent with family; that delicious ice-cream; the hilarious comedy show on Netflix; that Sunday morning hike; laughter with friends. Being present to the pleasures of life helps us tune into the joy they have to offer. So, savour your free time and remember, whatever brings you joy is not a “guilty pleasure” — it’s that necessary ingredient that adds meaning to life.

Sandy Clarke is a psychotherapist at HELP University, journalist, and author of ‘Mindfulness and Emotions: Understanding Your Mind and the Benefits of Being Present’. He is an advocate of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, helping people to develop meaning and purpose based on what they value most in life. If you have any questions or comments, email: