Information workers like me often check our work email on the weekend. Or we might make headway on an important presentation late at night from home, if that’s when our most productive hours are (or if we are running behind on a project). We are equally prone to answering personal messages while we’re at work or perhaps scanning a home-insurance document on the office copier. Knowledge workers generally like this kind of flexibility, but if you’re not careful about how you separate your work and your personal files, you could be getting yourself and your data into trouble.
Risky behaviors in the gray area between work and life could put sensitive data at risk. For instance, while many people might scan a personal document at the office here and there, you wouldn’t want to scan anything sensitive, because, unless you’re the head of IT, you have no idea where the multi-function printer saves copies of files it scans. They’re probably on the hard drive of the scanner itself, and they might be saved to unsecured shared servers, too.
Additionally, to maintain some semblance of work-life balance, it’s helpful to have cues that remind you when you’re doing one kind of work when you’re on the other clock. Let’s say you’re catching up on some emails three days into a family vacation. You might appreciate that you have the flexibility and opportunity to catch any urgent matters, but you might also want to get back to enjoying Splash Mountain with your kids. With a few simple strategies for separating your personal and work files, you’ll never get sucked into doing work for too long when you’re enjoying your personal time and vice versa.
The main trick to separating work and personal files is to compartmentalize them. Keeping specific things in dedicated places creates not only order, but also certainty. It works both in the physical world and the digital world. If you always put your keys in your right pocket and your phone in your left, you never end up searching your jacket for either of those items.
With digital files, the principles are the same, but the reality is a little different. You could keep all your work files in one folder and personal files in another, but do they live on the same server, computer, app, or mobile device? Do you want them to?
Sometimes we separate work files from personal files in order to maintain boundaries, so that we aren’t getting caught up in work when we should be spending time with family and friends, or so that we aren’t tempted to finish filing our taxes while we’re on the clock.
Over the years, I’ve developed some strategies that help me compartmentalize my work and personal files so they meet these conditions:
- They’re always separate
- They’re accessible no matter where I am, but
- It’s slightly inconvenient for me to access work files when I’m in home mode and home files when I’m in work mode.
Use Different Interfaces for Different Work
First let’s talk about digital documents, such as word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, PDFs, and images.
The easiest way I’ve found to keep documents separate and yet accessible is to store them in an online syncing service, and to use different services for different types of information. I use Dropbox to store, backup, and sync my personal files, and I rely on Google Drive for work. There are plenty of options beyond those two services, which you can read about in PCMag’s list of the best online storage services. But the point is to start by separating your files into two different services.
Why wouldn’t I choose my favorite storage service and create two different accounts instead of using two different services? Having a different interface helps me maintain the boundaries I need between work and personal files.
If I look at the Google Drive Web interface, I feel like I’m working. If I stare at Google Drive while I’m on vacation, however, bells go off in my head that remind me I’m doing work when I should be lounging by the pool. But if I’m tooling around Dropbox on the weekend, organizing my personal photos, my brain doesn’t give me that same “you’re working” signal. Over time, I’ve developed a strong association between each interface and what I do in that interface. For me, it’s even more important to have clear work-life boundaries because I work from a home office. When I did work full-time in an office building, I used similar strategies to the same effect.
Create Visual Cues in Your OS and Themes
Some storage services, such as those that integrate tightly with your operating system, don’t look like anything at all (unless you use the Web app). They don’t necessarily have a distinct interface. Another way you could be compartmentalizing without even realizing it is by using a different operating system at work and at home. If you have a Windows machine in the office and a Mac at home, you might already experience the same sensation of being hyper-aware when you’re doing office work at home on the Mac.
Another problem might be that you use some of the same tools in your work life and personal life because you like them. You don’t want to choose two different tools or interfaces. You want to use the one you like best for both. Some of my friends, for instance, use Slack for personal communication, and they also use Slack at work. In that situation, I’d recommend changing the theme (i.e., the color scheme) of your two Slack accounts so that they physically look different. You’ll quickly associate one color scheme with work and one with private personal chatter.
Compartmentalize by Browser
Another option for compartmentalizing your work and creating visual cues that remind you what type of work you’re doing is to stick to one kind of browser at work and another one at home. The visual cues might be more subtle, but you’ll still get into the habit of launching, say, Chrome for work and Firefox for personal stuff.
It’s also beneficial to use two separate browsers for keeping your Web history separate. For instance, you might be more vigilant about clearing the browser cache for work files because they contain sensitive company information, but you might actually want to keep your personal Web history so you can quickly look up sites you hit a few days ago (or vice versa).
Use Email Client Apps to Your Advantage
On mobile phones, there’s a really easy way to separate work email from personal email, no matter if you use the same email service, such as using Gmail, for both work and home. The solution: Use different email clients.
Gmail has a standalone app, but you don’t necessarily have to choose it as the app you use to access Gmail. On the iPhone, you could use the stock Mail app. Or on any type of phone, you can install a third-party email client app that works with Gmail, such as Boxer or Inboxcube.
I like to use separate apps for work and personal email. I get the same benefit of having two distinct interfaces. Plus, when I am trying not to get sucked into work, I can quit and close the work email while keeping my personal email more easily accessible, or vice versa.
It might be the case that you just really like one email client app, and you want to use it for both your work and personal email. With many apps, you can have multiple accounts authenticated and switch between them at will. It provides an ease of use that you actually might not want, however. You lose the benefit of having two distinct interfaces, and you lose the ability to quit the app with whichever account you want to make less tempting at the moment. Maybe you want your technology to be slightly less user friendly for the sake of your own psychology.
Better Work-Life Balance
If you’re in need of clearer boundaries between your work and personal lives, compartmentalizing your data into different apps, services, operating systems, and browsers helps tremendously.
Having two distinct virtual spaces where you access your files creates cues, associations, and barriers of entry that can help you minimize working on your off time or doing personal chores while you’re at work, while still allowing you to get them done when it’s necessary.