Learn to Set Boundaries at Work

Work dreams are the worst.

You already spent all day at the office, stayed late, spent the evening responding to emails, and now you can’t even drift off to the Land of Nod without taking paperwork and unfinished to-do lists with you. You barely have a weekend anymore, ever since budget cuts forced you to take on a few more responsibilities – which you don’t have time to do during the work day. You’re starting to resent social invitations (who has the time?!), and fatigue, anxiety, and a constant sense of being overwhelmed threaten to swamp you.

If you’re nodding along, you might need to check your work-life balance, and set some boundaries with your job.

But why do you need boundaries?

Say you had an extra 2-3 nights a week, or an extra weekend day free of responsibilities. What would you do with your time? Would you take up a new sport? Hit the gym? Take dance lessons with your sweetie? Never miss another of your daughter’s basketball games? Finally finish that novel?

If work is seeping into every corner of your life, it’s uprooting hobbies, dreams, and your loved ones. Before trying to reclaim that time, take a moment to remind yourself what you’re missing these days. What positive activities will fill those hours? What passions will remind you to clock off more frequently?

Draw a line in the sand

Whether you’re just starting a new position or you’ve been on the job for a decade, you can train your coworkers when and how to reach you. Each point has its challenges: if you’re new to the job, you’ll want to show that you can work hard without working constantly; if you’re an old hand your coworkers may be accustomed to getting your email responses even on weekends.

Unless it’s absolutely necessary that you be available whenever you’re awake, however, resist the temptation to check in on work if you’re not actually there. Don’t have your email forwarded to your phone, turn off your company cell phone if you’re not at the office, and keep the laptop in your briefcase. Set an autoresponder on your email for the weekend to let people know you’ll get back to them first thing on Monday.

Be communicative, and set the expectation for your coworkers to know when you are and aren’t available. Ask your family or partner to hold you accountable to, for example, not checking work email between 6pm and 9pm, or not working on Sundays.

Manage your time and priorities

Impress your managers with you productivity, not with the amount of overtime you put in. You’ve probably heard of Parkinson’s law, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you only had 8 hours to accomplish a day’s work – instead of letting it take up your entire day – most likely you’d still get it done.

Take a critical look at how you spend your days. Which items on your daily to do list must be accomplished today? Which would be better prioritized tomorrow? Where are you finding unnecessary delays (waiting for coworker signoffs, etc.)?

If you don’t assign the correct priority level to every task, everything feels like a Code Red that needs to get done yesterday. Often when I find myself feeling swamped, I’ll list everything that’s got me stressed out – from how I never hemmed those curtains to the deadline that’s breathing down my neck. Writing it all down helps clear my brain out, and afterwards, I go through and rank the priority of every item. That helps me see that some things (hemming curtains) are far less of a priority than others (today’s blog post deadline), and pares down my to do list.

Examine why you’re having trouble completing your work during work hours. Are there excessive meetings? Interruptions from coworkers? Document your days and go to your boss with the hard data about how you spend your time, and how you could spend it better. If you go to your manager with solutions, not complaints, you may both come up with some more efficient ways to spend your time.

Set rituals and stick to them

As corny as this may sound, creating rituals around your work can help compartmentalize it. Maybe every time you pull into your driveway, you meditate for 10 minutes in the car to let go of all the stress and transition from the workplace. Maybe you have a favorite song you listen to, or maybe you ride your bike to work, and the exercise of your commute is a transition point. Maybe you hit the gym after work.

Come up with a way to “contain” your work hours. This is especially important for me, since I work from home. My morning trigger is the act of making myself coffee and breakfast while listening to NPR. I take my coffee to my computer, where I already have a list of priorities I made the night before. At the end of the day I open my journal and pour out my accomplishments, frustrations, and make my priorities for tomorrow. My work brain thus “downloaded” onto paper, I’m ready to relax.

Creating a ritual will help you “shut off,” and transition from work mode to watching your daughter’s basketball game or taking your dog for a walk without reaching to check your email.

What passions would you love to make time for? How will you plan to do it?

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I have a goal to volunteer at least once a week. This builds my personal sense of value and provides me with immense satisfaction. Instead of using a personal journal to track accomplishments, I use a system call 280Daily (https://280daily.com). I use this tool to track daily accomplishments.