How Much Can You Separate Your Life And Your Work?

How Much Can You Separate Your Life And Your Work?

Advocating a strict line of separation between what you do for work and what you do with the rest of your life is pretty standard advice. But just how realistic is it in practice?

Photograph © Annie Leibovitz From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005

We’re certainly no strangers to that viewpoint here at Lifehacker HQ. We’ve even run posts noting people who delete all email when they’re on holidays to maintain the distinction.

But that approach doesn’t work for everyone. Noted photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose recent work is currently the subject of a retrospective at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, originally intended to divide her work into commercial assignments for magazines and personal photography of family and friends and display these in separate sections within the exhibition. However, she ended up abandoning that plan and melded the works together, with pictures of her parents sitting alongside big-name Hollywood types. She argues in the notes for the show that the distinction would be meaningless:

I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.

That distinction is of course sometimes harder to draw in a creative sphere than if (say) you work in a call centre. And if you truly enjoy your work, you’re likely to be less worried about the distinction. But no matter what job you do, you’ll have to make decisions about where the boundaries are.

Those issues have become particularly prominent in the social networking era. Will you post about your work on your Facebook profile? On Twitter? Will you comment on blogs? If your workplace enforces policies on those issues, do you find them acceptable?

But even if you’re happy with those issues, the question of where career and life blurs rarely disappears. How much overtime will you do? Will you check work email on holidays? Do you take enough holidays in the first place?

There’s no single answer to this dilemma: few people will probably feel their lives are as “seamless” as Leibovitz professes to be. But having some idea where you find the boundaries to be comfortable can lead to a more satisfying life. As ever, we welcome reader insights in how to draw those lines in the comments.


  • It’s a hard problem. Too much separation reduces your flexibility: perhaps you want to occasionally work from home, but can’t because all your work is at the office. And it’s very inconvenient maintaining two sets of profiles on every site: facebook, gmail, twitter, blogspot… And of course the complication of workmates who turn into friends – and then un-friends.

    My current strategy is this: one gmail account for everything but I use filters to label and archive everything work-related. One facebook account that is only personal, with a couple of colleague-friends. One twitter account that is only work. One blog that is only personal. One dropbox that contains a subfolder of work: it’s just so convenient having all my work stuff with me everywhere.

    And the hard bit – just force yourself to never, ever look at work stuff during personal time, unless there’s a good reason. (And yes, I consider it a good reason to occasionally work unpaid from home to impress specific people or to achieve particular work satisfaction.)

  • Well I work in software and at the previous company I worked at all the devs had MSN to help communication between rooms. The very first thing I did was to create a second IM account for use specifically with work contacts to go with the email address work supplied me. That was one good way to make sure I didn’t have to worry about work people when I was home (naturally those who I wanted outside friendships with I could give my alternative address to).

    I never added my work email to any programs I use to check email, that can be done the next morning. That said being an IT company we were in the fortunate position that should I like to work from home, I was able to remote desktop into the work systems and have access to everything apart from physical contact with the staff.

    I found it fairly easy to distance the two more or less but.

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