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Research: Keeping Work and Life Separate Doesn’t Boost Productivity

There are a lot of reasons to keep your personal and professional lives separate, not least of which is the desire to have some downtime, untainted by work pressures. The problem is that modern working life is 24/7. When you can check your work email at 3 a.m. without getting out of bed, and make a doctor’s appointment on your tablet while sitting in a meeting, it’s hard to know when you’re working and when you’re off the clock.

cognitive role transitioningPersonal preferences for unplugged time aside, work-life balance experts often cite productivity concerns as a reason to keep the different parts of our lives separate. If you’re a working parent, you’re already familiar with problem: when you try to do two things, it’s hard to do both of them well. When those two roles occupy the same space and time, the way being a professional and being a parent often do in today’s world, it’s even harder to feel like you’re wholly devoted to one role or another. Now, research published in the journal Human Relations suggests that rigidly separating the two spheres, personal and professional, may come at the cost of productivity.

“To understand why, we need to understand a concept psychologists call a ‘cognitive role transition,’” writes David Burkus, author of Under New Management, at Harvard Business Review. “When you’re actively engaged in one role, but experience thoughts of feelings related to a different role, you’re experiencing a cognitive role transition. Often these transition are easy and fleeting (such as remembering a parent’s birthday during a night out with friends), but the more separate the roles in your life, the bigger than transition.”

Cognitive Role Transitioning and Self-Regulatory Depletion

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In a study of 619 employees, researchers at Ball State University and Saint Louis University examined how cognitive role transitioning affected job performance.  Their research showed that workers with less segmented personal and professional lives were more likely to experience cognitive role transitions, but less likely to see negative impacts on their work. The difference lies in the way “self-regulatory depletion” affects job performance. When workers had less rigid boundaries, they expended less energy and experienced less stress switching back and forth.

If your boss wants you to do your best work, she’s better off letting you take that phone call from home.Click To Tweet

Exactly why employees with less defined boundaries were less depleted by the transition is up for debate.

“It could be that, because work and life are more closely integrated and less separate, it’s just easier for those individuals to push a home-related thought out of their mind, knowing they’ll be back in the home role sooner,” writes Burkus. “This may be why those employees in the study who had more blurred lines between work and life were the ones who experienced less disruption of job performance when home situations interrupted work time. However, it could also be that the more frequent role transitions makes it easier for those individuals to push the thought out of their mind with less willpower (almost like exercising a muscle).”

Regardless, it seems that if your boss wants you to do your best work, she’s better off letting you take that phone call from home.

“Overall, these findings suggest that integration, rather than segmentation, may be a better long-term boundary management strategy for minimizing self-regulatory depletion and maintaining higher levels of job performance during inevitable work–family role transitions,” the researchers write.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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