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When my husband and I go out to dinner, we have a phones-down date night rule. As soon as we sit down, he passes his phone off to me, and I tuck it, along with my own, into my purse, which gets slung over the back of my chair and neither of us can touch the devices until our check comes. 

But, in many ways, that whole experience feels pretty far behind us. 

The last time we went out to dinner was March 11. We managed to snag last-minute reservations at one of the most hard-to-get-into restaurants in town, and so we ran out for what would be our final restaurant meal before everything went, well, rather haywire. 

Here in New Orleans, we’ve been under a stay-at-home mandate for days now as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across our city, the state, the world. While some restaurants are still open for takeout, the idea of sitting down at one seems far off. 

Even farther off? The idea that we can put our phones down. 

As a career-minded couple without kids, work is often the subject of our conversations, and now that we’ve both got work at home with us in the face of pandemic-enforced office closures, it’s even harder to disconnect. My husband has taken over the guest room, and our dining table has turned into my workspace.

Though that has its benefits — oh, hello, nearby snacks! — it certainly has its pitfalls, too, like, how exactly, do I turn off my workday when I’ve got no commute, no escape from the pinging of emails and to-do lists? I’m the kind of person who finds it difficult to turn off, to find the edges of when my workday starts and stops, especially when the device that serves as my alarm clock to wake me up in the morning is conveniently tethered to my work email account.

It all reminds me of the single best advice I’ve ever received about working from home, and a suggestion that I’ve tried to pay attention to as I build new boundaries about work within my own dining room. 

Several years ago, I was working as an entertainment reporter in Baton Rouge, La., and I spent a lot of time traveling around to speak with artists, musicians and industry folks who made it all possible. Many of them worked from home at least part of the time. 

During one such home-office visit with a local music manager, I sat on his front porch and his phone dinged. It was early in the evening — past typical working hours — and he glanced at it before quickly putting the phone back down. I offered him the chance to take the call or deal with the email. He declined, then he told me this: 

“If I get a call or an email that, if I worked in an office downtown, was so important it meant I had to get up, leave this porch, get dressed and head downtown to deal with it, then I’d handle this right now. But if it can wait until I go back to the office, then it will wait.” 

And that is exactly how I’ve tried to structure my time since being forced into working from home. If I get a notification about something during my “off hours,” I ask myself, is this worth “going to the office for?” More often than not, it’s something that can wait until the next time I go to work — even if I’m still wearing leggings. 

Chelsea Brasted
Post by Chelsea Brasted
March 24, 2020
Chelsea is a local reporter in New Orleans for Axios, a new media company.