epistemic status: This is not my field of study. I am working through some ideas here that I think might resonate with the community.

I am a fun, happy, goofy dad. I can play music and perform magic tricks. I sing silly songs and make stupid jokes.

However, for 8 out of the 16 hours that I am awake, I sit at a desk, type, occasionally take phone calls, and talk about workflow. That's what I do 50% of my weekdays.

I am on a journey, trying to figure out what can be done to prevent these work habits from leaking into my personal life.

this post will be three major sections:

  • First, I'll argue that work habits are bad for personal life. 
  • After that, I'll contend that they are impossible to completely isolate from home life. 
  • Finally, I'll get into my thoughts on mitigating them.

This post is me working through some ideas. I'll do a separate post later on the efficacy of these.

 work behaviors don't generally port into personal life

Why are work-life and home life-different?

I try to optimize my decisions and behavior so that me and my family are happy and healthy. But when I work, I am a piece of a company that has different priorities.

Some companies optimize on profits, some non-profits optimize on effect of some type, but no company optimizes on the happiness and well-being of their employees. Some companies care, but it's never the overarching goal. This isn't an anti-work post, companies have to do this or they wouldn't be a company. That's okay by me.

My goal at home is to keep my family happy and healthy, my goal at work is to accomplish tasks for the company. Because part of my job is to help my company accomplish their goal, some of my behavior at work is completely unaligned with behavior outside work. I am not saying this behavior is bad at work, I'm just saying it would not usually be behavioral choices I would make outside work.

Work-behaviors have to be different from home-behaviors because all the incentives are different. Birds are different from fish because they both adapted in different environments, just as work behavior and home behavior are different because they both have different incentive structures.

How are work-life and home-life different?

Just about every work behavior is an example of bad home behavior but I will go through a lot of examples because I feel like this takes a big shift in perspective.

Closed door meetings are normal while working. Closing the door while working from home is an example of the same thing. This behavior is normal, good, and accepted at the workplace but in a family or friend setting probably shouldn't be normal. If I am with a group of friends or family, closed door meetings would be pretty bizarre. While there are examples of this being useful, it definitely isn't normative.

Professionalism is normative at the workplace. With friends and family there is no need to be professional. By professional I mean formal, and trying to display an air of competency. In personal life, I don't need to signal to people that in good at my job. Out of work it should be normative to tell jokes, embarrass myself a little, and feel okay silly or weird if I want. If there are cases I need to walk on eggshells, they would be far from ordinary.

Work is big on focusing for objectives. At home it's okay to not have objectives. It's okay just follow my toddler around for a bit with no plan. It's okay to go into something without a measurable objective.

At work people are paid to talk to me. If they like me or not, they kind of need to with with me. In real life, relationships don't work that way. No one it's getting paid to help me and every interaction with me is a choice.

Work has strange power dynamics that shouldn't exist in real life. In my home life I have no supervisor and I also have any "new employees" to train. Yeah I have kids but the supervisor/employee model is not my ideal model to raise kids.

Hopefully at this point you see what I am trying to get at. What is normative at work should not be normative at home.

It's impossible to not be molded by work

We have all heard the phrase, "don't take your work home." As if work contaminating home life is something that can be easily shut off with willpower. I hear a lot more about setting boundaries with work which is a great thing too. I think it's important to try to not let work effect home life, but will power isn't going to do it.

This might be my most important point in this post. Not thinking about work after work hours is just the first step towards preventing work from changing us. So much more needs to be done.

All the behaviors in the above section, closed doors, professionalism, objectives, etc. They are how we act for 8-ish hours a day. That has side effects regardless of whether we are cognitively thinking about work.

I am going to list a few strong reasons I believe work effects us even if we aren't cognitively thinking about it. You don't have to agree with all of these to understand my point.

Just because we aren't cognitively thinking about something doesn't mean it doesn't effect us. Whether you want to call it subconscious thought, the elephant (vs rider), or system 1( vs system 2) you probably believe that just because you cognitively aren't thinking about work doesn't mean work related thoughts don't effect your behavior. As a small example, you know the "ping" sound from getting a new email? Even if you aren't cognitively thinking about work, you hear that "ping" and it immediately makes you think about work. Maybe you want to check your email now, maybe you just get momentarily distracted. My point isn't that the"ping" is day ruining or even bad, just that there may be hundreds of things like the "ping" that effect your thought regardless of whether you are thinking about work.

I don't want to sound too behaviorist here, but for 8 hours a day your workplace behavior is being rewarded. Like Pavlov's dog to a bell, your "professional attitude and timely responses" is getting fed to you at performance reviews. The fact that "professionalism" is a semi-concrete term isn't because companies define professionalism and require it of you. It's because good work place behavior is rewarded and bad workplace behavior is discouraged. Saying you can "turn off" work place behavior after 5pm is like Pavlov's dog saying they won't salivate this time for the bell.

I am not sure what branch of psychology this falls under (IFS?), but maybe it resonates with you. Certainly you have made mistakes at work that scared you. Depending on how traumatic those were you may have built systems in place that make sure you don't repeat that trauma. I remember 18yo me being a waiter, spilling a drink on someone, having then angrily ask for the check to leave and on the bill I accidentally didn't remove the drink I just spilled on them. It was a series of honest mistakes for me but the anger I received and all the talking to the manager and all that made it something I still have nightmares about. You may believe that in the same way I built up barriers to ensure I don't make the same mistake twice, we all have workplace barriers built up in our heads. Now if you believe that we sometimes aren't cognizant of those barriers immediately, or maybe not even realizing those barriers are effecting us; it's easy to see how those barriers can't be turned off in our home life.

And the least rigorous intuition for why we can't "turn off" work life. Who do you think is more cautious in a dark alley: an off duty police officer or an off duty waiter. Who is more detail oriented while off the clock: an accountant or a golf caddie. Who is more personable off the clock: a car salesman or a programmer. This is flawed in many ways, but it describes my intuition that jobs require attention to certain traits and years of doing a job reinforces that trait.

What can I do to prevent this

Okay I have some ideas I might try.

If I were Pavlov's dog, how would I avoid being trained to expect doggy treats at a bell. I might reinforce the exact opposite behavior once Pavlov leaves the room. Alternatively, before Pavlov comes in, I might eat so many dog treats that the idea of another disgusts me. I might try to develop an allergy to the dog treats.

I think the idea to " eat so many dog treats that the idea of another disgusts me" is a good starting point. Having everything I need outside of work is important. Having strong relationships, validation, and importance outside of work will prevent me from seeking it within work. I am thinking of this as a good foundation, making sure I don't need work for anything and it isn't filling in any gap in my home life.

"Building an allergy to dog treats" is an interesting idea. I think this would look like making sure I hate my job and despise being better at it. I could put in some interventions for that but it doesn't seem like a healthy choice so I'm going to table that idea.

"reinforce the exact opposite behavior once Pavlov leaves the room" is an interesting idea too. At first I imagined biking for x/5 amount of minutes, with x being minutes I am in meetings. I hate biking right now but I do it as exercise. If I am sitting through a meeting thinking about how much I am going to have to sweat for this, I might be minimizing the effects of reinforcement behavior.

Okay I've got some ideas, but what if I'm coming from this the wrong way. I do kind of want to get better at work. All these interventions would probably make me worse at work. Can I keep work reward structures wife somehow disassociating them with my home life.  Can I have my cake and eat it too?

Maybe. I have played an embarrassing amount of time in video games but I don't feel more likely to punch trees (Minecraft) or storm Hyrule castle (Zelda) or hit people with my car keys (kingdom hearts). Also, actors play all sorts of characters and don't turn out like them. Although famously method actors do have a hard time getting out of character sometimes. Gaming, acting, taking on another character seems to help at preventing reinforcement learning. Can I gamify my job?!

I think this method would take on two parts: 1 playing a character other than myself. 2 some sort of point and reward system. 3 reminding myself I'm in a game.

Initial thoughts are that 1 (playing a character) might entail: switching outfits immediately before and after work. When I work from home maybe wearing work glasses that I can take off easily on breaks. Turning on a bright "stage light" in front of my camera for meetings. Picking attributes of my personality that I would like to elevate or change when I'm in my "work mode". Finally actors film a scene and then take a break, I think timed pomodoro style breaks where I get out of character are important.

Okay so for 2 (reward structure). I thought long and hard and wrote a lot to arrive at the conclusion that work already has a reward structure. Better at work is more pay, more job opportunities, more project choice. I could think of gamey incentives like fighting a dragon but honestly that would pale in comparison to a pay increase or more job mobility.

Part 3 is important, reminding myself I'm playing a game. Acting works because actors know when the cameras record. Games work because we don't need to worry about orcs showing up in our real-life living room. Work is difficult because the way we treat it, like it's a part of our personality, it can be quite convincing that it is real life. Work is not real life!!! Running an efficient meeting won't make me a better dad. I am going to try so hard to treat my work like a video game.

Currently, I occasionally feel the need to tell my friends about a big work accomplishment, or maybe I'll find someone with a similar job and I'll want to geek out about their technology stack. I need to fight the urge. I am going to make more of an effort to not feel pride about my work outside my work. Also, I'm putting pictures of my family everywhere. Might even change my mouse cursor to my son's face, remember when everyone changed your cursor on their myspace page?

I feel like I need to defend the last one. It's a good thing to be proud of the work one does, I'm not saying it's bad. Right now I think the benefits from disassociating from work-proudness outweighs the goodness from having work I am proud of.


My plan is to do these concrete things:

  •  I will build a work character, someone I can act as
  •  I will try not to talk to anyone about my job unless they are in a position very similar to mine (for networking purposes)
  •  I will take frequent breaks, when I can, to get out of character
  • I will continue to build a good foundation of friends and family outside work
  •  I'm going to decorate my home office with more pics of the kiddos

I will measure success with the following metrics.

  • am I able to move from work to non work tasks easily
  • do I feel a need to talk about work
  • hopefully I should feel some sense of being more myself although this is vague

And I will report back!

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Are you familiar with the idea of masks and mask work? Most of what I know comes from Johnstone's Impro (here's a decent online review/summary), but the basic idea in theater comes from folk religion, where people wear masks and go into trances to temporarily become someone else. Traditionally humans used mask trances to embody what they believed were gods and spirits. Now people use mask trances to play characters on the stage.

What does this have to do with anything? Although the mask trance is an extreme form, there's a sense in which we can wear masks to become different people in different situations. Most people do this a little bit, e.g. behave a bit differently with different people, and some people do it a medium amount, e.g. code switching, but you can learn to do it a lot.

This gives you the option to put up stronger boundaries between the person you are at work and home (and in other situations). Even just knowing about masks can help make it clearer how you can put down the mask you wear at work, say, when you get home, maybe by having a little ritual where you "take off your mask". For example, think of Mr. Rodgers changing into his sweater when he "came home" and changing out of it when he "left home".

It's not exactly perfect, but it's a technique that may help you deal with the transition between different contexts where you need to present a different persona to the world.

Wow thank you. This is amazing insight that fits perfectly into my model. I will find a way to implement this for a bit and see how it feels.

I think the overall point you're making is intriguing, and I could see how it might alter my home behaviour if I considered it more deeply. But I also strongly disagree with the following:

Just about every work behavior is an example of bad home behavior

There is a bunch of "work behavior" that has been very useful – in the right measure – for my personal life:

  • Task Management – This cut down on the time I spend on "life admin". 
  • Scheduling – Reaching out with "let's find an evening to play tennis" helps me increase the number of fulfilling activities I do with friends.
  • Prioritization – Day-to-day life can obscure what's really important. Thinking about what I really value and want to achieve can make my life more meaningful.
  • Creating Spreadsheets & Documents – Apart from the obvious use case in personal finance, Spreadsheets are also very valuable to me for evaluating crucial life decisions ("Where should we move?"). I use documents for private events I'm organising (e.g. a weekend trip to the mountains with friends).

Maybe some of them are too obvious and common. But they are things that my grandmother wouldn't have done – and I suspect that they are mostly derived from work culture.

Agree with you that there is some overlapping tasks. If I were more precise I would say,

"I believe 85% of work behavior is an example of bad home behavior, but depending on your job and other factors this has a wide confidence interval"

Even if the tasks have the same name, they can look very different. For example: scheduling is something we do at work and at home but at work I use outlook and teams to schedule while at home I use text. Entire etiquette of what to do if someone proposes an alternative time, who is expected to come, what you are expected to say if you can't come. I would argue that while it's called "scheduling" in both home and work environments there are more differences than similarities between the two behaviors. This is going to wildly depend on your job, I kind of skipped over the assumption that a lot of less wrong users work in an office-like environment.

I think we learn how to use tools at work like spreadsheets, to-do lists, etc that grandma would never use but we are using them to accomplish different goals than at work. I am semi-confident in this even though I haven't thought through all the tasks because I believe that the incentive structure underpinning the whole work environment leads to different behaviors. It would be an odd coincidence if despite different incentives work and home behaviors were exactly the same.


This is important and useful exploration.  I think it's important to distinguish between roles, techniques, and identity.  You're the same person (to the extent that the phrase makes any sense for constantly-changing beings) at work and at home.  You're performing different functions, for different people who are also in different roles.

Note that this would be true even without work - you interact differently with your children than with your wife, and very differently with the plumber or your landlord.  There's really very little risk for most people mixing these up.

I caution about being TOO binary in work vs home attitudes.  Being goal-driven and performing unfun tasks in order to achieve those goals is part of every life, and there are lots of household goals that benefit from this mindset.  Likewise, some amount of whimsy and creativity is a valuable part of many jobs.

One of the most valuable things I have done, for myself, is to let as much of my personal life bleed into my work behaviors as I can, as you define them.

This could have backfired spectacularly. In some work cultures probably it would always backfire.

In mine, I:

  • make 98%+ of my writing viewable to everyone at the company, and we're remote, so almost everything of importance makes it into writing
  • never "try" to display an air of competency - trying to display an air of competency is one of the core behaviors that caused terrible feedback loops and major depression early in my career, now I take joy every time I can display to everyone where I am not competent. In some sense this is signaling extreme competency because who would do that unless they were very comfortable in their position. See also "backfire". But also this can lead to much more rapid professional competency growth, because other people love to teach you things.
  • tell jokes, embarrass myself a little, feel okay being silly or weird, literally treat it as a red flag about a person if I feel I need to walk on eggshells around them and bring it up with my manager even if I can't point to exactly why
  • push for exploratory "something seems interesting here but IDK what and no I can't tell you its value" work in general, and in specific do some of it myself whenever the mood strikes and nothing urgent is otherwise going on

Wow the opposite of what I was thinking. You are steps ahead of me if you have actually implemented changes. What is your experience with the change so far? If you don't mind, has it effected the measurables I wanted to investigate?

-am I able to move from work to non work tasks easily -do I feel a need to talk about work

  • hopefully I should feel some sense of being more myself although this is vague

My life is similar to @GuySrinivasan's description of his. I'm on the autism spectrum, and I found that faking it (masking) negatively impacted my relationships.

Interestingly I found that taking steps to prevent overimitation (by which I mean, presenting myself not as an expert, but as someone who is always looking for corrections whenever I make a mistake) makes me people much more willing to truly learn from me, and simultaneously, much more willing to challenge me for understanding when what I say doesn't make a lot of sense to them... this serves the duel role of giving them an opportunity correct my mistakes (a benefit to me) and giving them an opportunity to call out when my presentation style does not work for them (another benefit to me.)

My approach has the added benefit of giving people permission to correct me socially, not just professionally, which makes my eccentricities seemingly more tolerable to the average coworker. (i.e., People seem to be more willing to tolerate my odd behaviors when they know that they can talk to me about it, if it really bothers them.)

My relationships with people outside of work depends entirely on what's going on with that relationship. I tend to avoid complaining about social issues at work to anyone except my wife, and few people can really appreciate the nuance of the job that I do unless they're in the same job, so I don't feel much compulsion to talk about my work. (If someone asks what I do, I generalize that I help people figure out how to do their jobs better. Although my work space is not in self-help or coaching, but actually in a technical space... but that's largely irrelevant beyond it being a label for my industry.)

I also tend to have narrow range of interests, which influences the range of topics for non-work relationships.

I do my best to minimize switches from work to non-work "modes". When I am done with work for the day, I usually give myself a half hour to chill before switching to non-work.

I do not feel a need to talk about work. But some work anecdotes are still good for personal life, of course, and I do not censor them.

I actually feel... more intensely not like myself now, at work, than I used to, in some sense, because back in the major depression days I tried to feel as little as possible. Now I notice a lot more often when I'm doing things that "aren't me". So like previously I was closer to Gordon's mask description (in fact I described my fake-self as my "shell") and there was no active tension between shell-actions and identity, just passive drain from using the shell. Whereas now it feels a lot more like "I am always me, but compromise that in certain ways at work".

At work people are paid to talk to me. If they like me or not, they kind of need to with with me. In real life, relationships don't work that way. No one it's getting paid to help me and every interaction with me is a choice.

Actually, I see it much the opposite way. You can choose to not to talk with people at work, eg by quitting.

It’s much more difficult to stop talking to your kids, wife. Sure, you can get divorce, but that’s kind of extreme compared to quitting the job :-)

Good point! I guess I am biased as I do not have the gift of lots of work mobility right now, I can't change teams or jobs without lots of effort.

I guess I was thinking more friends and non-household relatives, but I didn't say that.

Even though I butchered the analogy; I think there is still a different dynamic at play, where my kids and wife don't owe me anything like someone who is being paid to help me.

I don't know how it looks like at your work, so hard to judge. But, I would say that your wife and kids do owe you, and you do owe them. It's not like you can stop carrying for your wife and kids tomorrow without breaching a strong (though informal) social contract.


And well, your colleagues are paid to do their job, but normally I would expect them to have a lots of freedom in how they do the job and how much of their attention will they spend helping other people? So, it's still kind of a choice if they do? But, again, I don't know your workplace, so maybe its more strict and formal?

What’s wrong about closed doors meetings at home?

Sometimes your kid needs to have a feel of privacy for a hard conversation and it really helps to seclude from the group and talk behind close doors.

Sometimes you have disagreements with your wife about how to deal with behavior of your kids, again, the conversation you better leave for the time kids are asleep or not around.

Agreed important at times to have closed door meetings but don't you agree work is maybe 90% closed door meetings and home should be maybe 5% closed door meetings?

My kiddos are both under 2yo so closing a door on them isn't really a possibility, I was imagining into the future which is bad. Sounds like you have more experience here so I could be wrong.

I would say that for good workplaces the difference is smaller. Surely, especially in managerial position, you'll have to help lots of people with their psychological issues, insecurities, troubles, etc... I would say that about 30% of my meetings are closed door, other happen in common spaces. In most of the cases when the meeting is closed door, it's to provide the other person with privacy and feeling of security.

My oldest one is 6 and sometimes he really needs some privacy and thus we do sometimes close door behind us. It's not as often as at work because a) I have less kids than employees, b) I suspect older he gets more private talks will he want to have.