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ANNEAR TO THE GROUND

Routines and ‘shutdown rituals’ help maintain a balance between work and life during COVID-19

'If that’s moving two couch cushions over, so be it.'

Nic and Breanna DiBella mandate outdoor breaks from their work at home. They operate a creative marketing services firm.
Nic and Breanna DiBella mandate outdoor breaks from their work at home. They operate a creative marketing services firm.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Working from home these past few months, Nicole Levesque has found the separation of her professional and personal lives has been demarcated not by the moment she walks through the front door, but instead by the middle section of her couch.

The right side is strictly for job-related tasks. And when it’s time to clock out, she moves over to the left side — a place set aside exclusively for leisure.

“There’s a middle cushion that is never sat on,” said the 36-year-old administrative assistant, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Brookline. “It’s the only fluffy cushion on the couch.”

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It might sound silly, scooting back-and-forth on a sofa to distinguish parts of the day. But for those fortunate enough to still have a job, who are working and living under one roof, establishing so-called “shutdown rituals” or routines — fixed measures that denote the official end of a workday — has become increasingly important to maintain a semblance of a healthy work-life balance (if such a thing exists at this point).

Five months into the pandemic, employees now toiling in their living spaces say they’re marking the invisible passage from diligent worker to partner/parent/person-with-a-life by turning off laptops and then dancing or taking a few laps around the block in the time they used to spend on a commute.

Others are symbolically finalizing their day by practicing an instrument while drinking a beer; popping open a bottle of wine and stretching out on the back deck, where talk of a job is not allowed; or using a rowing machine to pretend they’re leaving work by boat.

“People are engaging in these behaviors and rituals to transition themselves from work to home,” said Laura Dudley, an associate clinical professor in applied psychology at Northeastern University. “These routines can be really beneficial, especially during uncertain or uncomfortable times, like we’re in right now.”

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Dudley, a behavior analyst, said rituals around the end of the workday are important because “many of us are working in the same space where we are then spending time unwinding,” and signaling a shift through action can help separate the two.

“If that’s moving two couch cushions over, so be it,” she said.

The general concept of “shutdown rituals” predates the pandemic. In his 2016 book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” author Cal Newport wrote about the process in the context of reviewing and making a plan for work-related tasks to close out the day worry-free. He’s even sheepishly copped to saying the phrase “schedule shut down, complete” out loud when he’s done. Newport’s methods have been referred to often online.

But with so many people working from home due to the pandemic, and white-collar employers rethinking the corporate office strategy, the overall idea has been adapted by others to fit our current conditions.

“There is now a cult following [of] shutdown ritualists who use the same phrase,” Newport, who first blogged about the idea a decade ago, said in an e-mail.

In a post on the City of Boston’s website last week, the Office of Human Resources outlined tips for developing such a routine for those struggling with disengaging from work at home.

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“Maintaining a balance between work and life is even more important now amid COVID-19,” the city said in a tweet linking to the post. “‘Shutdown rituals’ can help you disconnect from work and decompress.”

According to officials, what you do doesn’t matter, just that you do “something to replace the routine of wrapping up, leaving the office, and traveling home.”

For Quincy resident Jackie Geilfuss, an IT professional who used to work in a Cambridge office setting, mirroring the hour of solace she once enjoyed while commuting home on the Red Line has become her go-to method of closing out the day.

Instead of listening to a podcast on the train to unplug from work, Geilfuss now strolls around outside her apartment complex before she “returns home.” Her wife, Jess, then greets her as if they haven’t been in the house together all day.

“That’s our opportunity to be together and not be working,” Geilfuss said. “It’s been enough to have that mental separation [between work and home]. It seems to be helping.”

Khloé Lewis, an account executive from Somerville, also mimics her former commute. When the laptop goes off, the walking shoes go on — and a 30-minute ceremonial stroll ensues.

“Early on, when I wasn’t really doing this on a more established basis, the day felt so much longer and kind of just blended together,” said Lewis, 25. “Leaving and going on a walk — even if it’s the same walk — it does feel like it’s small, but feels like a reset and clears your mind to get in a different mental space.”

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When she gets back, she tries to steer clear of the one chair she’s been using for work all day.

Others said it can feel nearly impossible to truly establish a hard line between work and home. But setting actual physical boundaries as part of a ritual has been beneficial.

Waltham resident Julie Staadecker has been using her bed and a tray — behind closed doors — as a workspace. At a set time, she will “shut down the computer, put the tray away, separate from my setup, and reopen the bedroom to the world.”

“I think setting those boundaries for myself compared to the beginning [of the pandemic] has definitely been helpful in terms of mindshare and overall productivity,” said Staadecker, who works in strategic communications.

In Worcester, Nic DiBella, 32, is militant about decompressing. He makes sure his shutdown ritual includes his wife, Breanna, with whom he runs a creative marketing agency. Around 6 p.m., he pries her from the office (he works from the dining room table) and the couple settle into chairs in the backyard. Then, out come the refreshments.

“It’s important to find a way to reinstitute some sort of normalcy and delineate your time between personal and professional,” he said. “If you’re not careful, they will absolutely bleed into one another.”

Nic and Breanna DiBella take a break in their backyard with cold fruit-infused water and cheese and crackers. Some people, who are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, have developed "shut-down rituals" to end their work day.
Nic and Breanna DiBella take a break in their backyard with cold fruit-infused water and cheese and crackers. Some people, who are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, have developed "shut-down rituals" to end their work day. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Steve Annear is in pursuit of stories so odd or unconventional you’ll want to bring them up at dinner parties. Have you seen something you’d like answers to? A giant door? Or perhaps a graveyard of rocking horses, a strange stone marker on an island, or old trophies under a bridge? Let us know by filling out this form. If your suggestion is picked, we’ll check it out for you.

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Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.