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“Please turn off your work e-mail!” I had not even been home for a full day when my wife implored me to disconnect from the office. It was the week before Christmas, and after four months in Southern California, I had returned home to my family in Virginia for an eagerly anticipated two weeks of holiday time. I love my new job in academic support, and right from the start I had linked my iPhone mailbox to my work e-mail account, so it felt entirely natural to me, the morning after I had arrived home, to check for messages from my students and co-workers. There were, in fact, a couple of communications pertaining to issues that had arisen just before I left, and I was glad to be able to take care of those quickly. But later, when my wife found me checking my work e-mail again, she suggested that I needed to draw a clearer boundary between work and home.

Often when we think of drawing boundaries, we imagine the line in the sand, or the surveyor’s map with its neat, immutable lines and arcs. But the dividing line between work and home can be more like a river boundary – not something that we create ourselves so much as something that is already there, and we select it as a boundary out of convenience and necessity. After all, most of us don’t choose the limits of our workday; our offices are open at certain times, and we are expected to be there then. Weekends and holidays are like meanders, swinging around loops of personal time. There might sometimes be a flood of work, spilling over the banks and encroaching on family time.

Never the same river twice

Never the same river twice

And rivers also change course. In U.S. and, for the most part, international law, two different rules apply to changes in river boundaries. If there is a single event that causes a sudden change in a watercourse – say, a flash flood that cuts a new channel overnight – then the boundary is defined by reference to the old riverbed. But when a river gradually changes course, almost imperceptibly, over a period of years, as the flow of water erodes one bank and deposits material on the other, the law says that the boundary changes with the river. Territory that once belonged to Nebraska can become part of Iowa, if the Missouri River is declared the boundary and the river moves. For that reason, states and nations sometimes redefine traditional river-based boundaries, referring to specific longitudes and latitudes, so that even if the river changes course, the boundary remains fixed.

It may be convenient (and sometimes necessary) to think of the work/home boundary as something defined by the topography of life – a kind of “natural” border defined by circumstance and familiarity, without conscious effort. I was checking my work e-mail the weekend before Christmas because I could, and because I was so used to being immersed in that continuous flow of work information. But when you let your boundaries be defined by circumstance, you run the risk that they will shift gradually without you even noticing. Territory that once belonged to your family can become part of work, or vice versa.

Draw your own boundaries. Take the landscape of your job and home life into account, but consciously draw borders that are not subject to erosion. You can redraw your own boundaries when necessary; why surrender that power? I turned off my work e-mail, suffered a day or so of irrational anxiety, and then really enjoyed my time with my family. Because of that, when I turn my e-mail back on in the new year, I am sure I will enjoy my return to work territory all the more.