How to Leave Work at Work

A chosen few in this profession can support themselves writing; the rest of us have to keep a day job to survive. They certainly do get in the way, though.

No matter how close or how far from work I have lived, I’ve found that I often couldn’t get work out of my head so that I could write once I got home. The stress from my jobs kept bleeding into my evenings so that I could barely get myself to do more than microwave a dinner before I went to bed.

I’m sure plenty of you have felt this, too. Writers, as a general rule, tend to be rather neurotic, and I know I am no exception.

Back in the mid and late 00s, I pursued a degree in the academic study of religion, and I learned something that might help with this. Allow me to get a little academic hear.

Liminality and Rites of Passage

Liminality is an anthropologic term derived from the Latin limen, which means threshold. Way back when, Arnold van Gennep came up with the idea of liminality in reference to rites of passage. For those who don’t know, rites of passage are rituals that move a person from one role in society to another.

There are three distinct portions. First, there’s the pre-liminality where the subjects “dies” from their previous role in society. Second, you get the actual liminality. Here, the subject of the ritual exists as a sort of non-person because they are transitioning from one role to another. Finally, there is the post-liminality, where the subject is reincorporated into their new role in society. The rituals here break down the subject and then, sort of, rebuild them into a new person with a new role in society. Van Gennep developed this theory of ritual mostly for coming-of-age rites of passage, but it works for just about any of them.

Think of wedding ceremonies. The pre-liminal rites, the ones that move one out of the social role of “single,” is the hair and make up and putting on clothes that are unique from your everyday items. The liminal rites are the wedding ceremony in general, where vows are taken, name are changed, etc. This bit moves you from one social role into another. The post-liminal rites, which reintroduce you to society in your new social role, include introducing the new couple at the reception, everyone partying, and watching the new couple drive off together.

Or graduation. Or the bar and bat mitzah.

Okay, Ainsel, interesting. Seems pretty heavy for just getting your head straight and writing after work, but okay.

But there’s a reason Van Gennep used a term for threshold when he described this. Thresholds are hugely important to the human mind. It’s a physical separation of space, and it’s so symbolically important that it’s the reason that we forget what we were doing when we walk from one room to another: we know a threshold is important in reordering the mind.

You can use this knowledge to create a sort of ritual that turns work off and turns writing on.


It’s the end of your work day. You’re ready to go home. You throw everything into your bag or briefcase and run for the door.

But wait! If you’re running home immediately from work without thought or intention, then you’re just carrying your work home with you, subconsciously. You aren’t breaking down your pre-liminality role as “employee.”

You see, Work You is one social role, Home You, or more importantly Writing You, is another one. You need to transition between those two roles.

So, how do you break down your social role of Work You?

You need to create a little ritual. If you work at a desk, consciously and intentionally put all your work away. Turn off your computer. Gather your things. Tell yourself you’re leaving work and going home.

Changing clothes is a helpful physical reminder that you’re leaving work, too. If you wear a uniform at work, try changing into and out of it at work, if you can. I have to wear a sweater at work, so I have one that I only wear at work. I put it on when I get to work, I take it off when I leave. I refuse to wear it on the way home, and often I even leave it at work. Changing shoes is another option.

It can be any little ritual you do intentionally every day that reminds you that you are leaving work.

Liminal Rites

Commuting can be hugely stressful. It used to take me two hours to get home from work, so I’d arrive home frustrated, angry, hungry, tired, and in no mood to write.

The commute is the time when you are in liminality. This should be a role-less you, an amorphous not Work You, not Writing You, but a You that lacks any real role in the work-writing worlds.

What can you do in the commute that would help you? Something not involved in work or writing at all.

I started listening to audiobooks. In fact, I have certain audiobooks I only listen to when I commute. It’s a way for me to just listen and drive. Reading often sublimates my ego: I don’t am a passive participant, rather than an active actor.

You could listen to good music you enjoy or even no music at all. Perhaps you can just take the time to breathe deeply and take notice of the view around you. You know, meditate, if you’re walking, riding the bus or train, or biking to and from work.

Do not listen to the news or talk radio, as that will likely get you upset. And make a conscious effort to enjoy the commute home, either driving or riding the train. Let it be a time for you to decompress.

This is a time in when Work You transitions into Writing You. You’re preparing yourself for getting home and writing. Doing stuff that makes you upset and stressed won’t help.

Personally, I really like the idea of going to the gym between work and home. Aside from the fact that I enjoy going to the gym (I know not everyone does and at the moment, I can’t actually afford a gym membership and not everyone can, so…). I like it because you’re going to be wearing different clothes than work or home clothes, and you’re going to be doing something physically that wears you out.

Whatever you do, it has to be a thing that isn’t Work You and isn’t Writing You yet.

Post Liminal Rites

Once you’ve arrived home, it’s time to move from the liminal stage to Writing You. You are taking the role-less You and rebuilding You as Writing You. There are a couple of great things to do.

First, be present once you’ve gotten home. Greet whomever is waiting for you – your dog, your cat, your family, or your goldfish. Even if nothing but your home is waiting, say hello. Then, put your things away – your wallet, your purse, your bag, your coat – and if you haven’t changed out of work clothes, do so. One of the first things I do when I get home is put take a shower and put on lounge-y clothes.

Take your time to relax. If you have kids, you probably won’t have time to write until they’ve gone to bed anyway, so why not use the time to distance yourself from work a little more. If you do have kids, just take that time to enjoy being with your family. Take the time to recognize that your kids will one day grow up, and then these times will be just memories. Don’t mar them by being angry and frustrated.

If you don’t, you still probably got a few things you can do to relax a bit further. Make dinner. Take a shower. Clean up a bit. Whatever. You’re about to transition into Writing You, and just like you need a definite transition from Work You, you need a definite transition into Writing You. It could be a sweater you wear for writing. Or a room that you go into when you’re writing. Or put on music that you listen to while you’re writing. You need the threshold.

Once you’ve got into your writing clothes, sat down in your writing chair, and started your writing time, do it. Write however long you need. Even if all you’re doing is just staring at a blank page, do it for as long as you have allotted.

If You Need to Vent

Do so before you leave work. If you need to sit in your car and scream for a few minutes, do so. If you need to burn some frustration out of your system on the way to the train, do it before your commute actually starts. Venting anger and frustration from work needs to be part of your pre-liminal phase. If you carry that anger with your through your liminal and post-liminal phases, you’re not actually moving from Work You to Writer You. You’re still stuck as Work You.

Taking some time to do relaxation exercises is helpful. Margarita Tartakovsky has some great ways over at PsychCentral. Check those out. Again, I would suggest do those before you leave work. If you feel you still need to, repeat them again before you enter your home.

If You Work At Home

Some of us telecommute. Some of us run businesses from home. How do we deal with that when work and home are the same place?

Well, liminality works here, because you can create a liminality of space as well as time.

Think of temples, churches, graveyards, libraries, any place that feels qualitatively different inside from the outside. Think of the path leading up to the doors (a long walkway or a staircase), the large doors, the foyer. It’s all to signal to you, subconsciously, that this is a different space. Thoughts, behaviors, they need to change.

You can do the same thing at home, even if you work from home.

If you have the room, have your home office in a separate room that you can shut once you’re done. Do not write in this room if you work in this room. If you can’t have a separate room, try to make some sort of physical barrier to the space you are using. If you can make it permanent, perfect. If not, then at least don’t do your work on your bed or your couch. Those are places for relaxing.

If you have the separate room, have the desk face the door so it’s the first thing you see when you enter. Decorate in such a way that it’s the centerpoint. That image will tell your subconscious that this is for Work You, not Writer You.

Set aside time for the work you do at home, and do not allow yourself to work beyond that time if you can at all avoid it. Once you are done, leave the room and don’t go back until it’s time to work again. If you don’t have a separate room, put everything away so that you’re not seeing it constantly. If you are wearing specific clothing (like a nice shirt for video conferencing), change.

Just remember, the best thing for you to do is to create a physical and temporal barrier for yourself. Passing that, and creating tiny rituals for you, can help your subconscious shift gears to move out of the Work Mode and into the Writing Mode.

Good luck. And remember, just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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