Establishing Healthy Work Boundaries

Go-getter Gaithri Raj writes about work-life balance for GGTW. See her other articles on the importance of self-care, how to identify toxic work environments, and finding your unique path for more inspiration!

In line at the store, on the elevator, while crossing the street, sometimes even at the dinner table! People with their heads down, deeply focused on their phones, furiously swiping, typing away. This is a familiar scene to all of us. We might even be a little guilty of it ourselves. I know I am.

Sure, our new mobile workspace environments allow us to edit spreadsheets on the go, approve vacation with a couple of screen taps, and update support tickets from our phones. While that can increase efficiency, it also means we now have work going on in our hands, without any physical constraints to bound it like in the days of brick and mortar offices. This made me wonder: 

Is it truly even possible to separate your home and personal time from your work time anymore? 

As a habitual, recovering multi-tasker, I struggle with focusing my attention on only one thing at a time, and I derive a sense of satisfaction when a number of things need my attention.  But I learned that multi-tasking is not a very smart move for maintaining long-term productivity and a healthy work-life balance. So I decided to find out what to do instead. 

I learned a lot about how successful people organize their time in the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. The book details the lives of famous creatives (Jane Austen, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas Wolfe, etc.) and how they all had some variation of a curated schedule—when they awoke, when they worked, who they socialized with, and what they drank. They mapped out their ‘best’ times in order to fully utilize them, and practiced a strict discipline of adhering to these routines.  

While I’m personally not a fan of having a rigid daily routine, figuring out times of higher and lower productivity made a lot of good sense to me and supported the idea of keeping work and life somewhat compartmentalized. I wanted to stop feeling groggy in the morning, mentally fatigued after working late, or exhausted after a night of fitful sleep while dreaming of nothing but solutions for a client’s request. So, I set a personal goal to get enough good rest each day to feel fresh about starting or resuming work. Keeping in mind that there’s a never-ending list of variables outside of my control, I focused on what I could control. I discovered five things I could do to help me establish healthy work boundaries, rejuvenate, and return to work, fully ready to tackle it all over again.

Find that sweet spot in your productivity cycle and make the best of it. 

Whether it is first thing in the morning, right around 10 AM when your caffeine’s fully kicked in, or late into the night when everyone is asleep, you know when that ideal confluence of body and mind occurs.  Follow the lead of the people in Daily Rituals and use that time to tackle the world. Focus on difficult projects during the time when you are the most effective, and if possible, schedule those energy-zapping meetings, phone calls or emails for other times.

Coffee mug, toasted bread, orange, clock and a laptop
Find that sweet spot in your day and make the most of it!

Focus on one thing at a time. 

Regardless of what time of day or night it is, or at what point of your productivity cycle in which you find yourself, you should pick the one item you are going to work on and focus your attention on only it. Studies have shown the more task switching you do, the worse your performance and time to complete each task will be. Our minds have trouble discerning what is important and what isn’t when we multi-task, and we end up spending (really, wasting) a lot of time trying to filter this information. 

Woman writing with a pen, drinking from a sup, dialing a phone and using a computer.
If you start to feel like your brain has too many tabs open, you need to start shutting things down.

The goal here is to eliminate distractions and stay focused on the task at hand. This will probably take some practice if you are used to doing more than one thing at once. In my case, I had to first accept and understand the fallacy that multi-tasking was not as efficient as my mind made it out to be. Part of that change involved revisiting my relationship with my phone and other electronic devices. This brings me to the next tip.

Establish and maintain tech blackout time. 

At work or at home, you have the ability to gatekeep irrelevant stimuli from your phone and other electronic devices. Once I thought about this, I realized how much my phone distracted me from focusing on the task at hand and prevented me from disconnecting from work and feeling rejuvenated!

Picture of phone powering off, and screens for muting and blocking notifications
Gate keep irrelevant stimuli by muting or turning off your phone.

Turn your phone completely off, or place it on mute or in airplane mode to minimize interruptions when you need to focus. Practicing regular no tech/phone time naturally allows you to be more present with your family and friends without the interruption of emails or pings during dinner or a get-together. (Of course, if you have a project deadline or implementation kick-off, you may need to sneak away to attend to a couple of things, but it should truly be the exception.)

And keep it off, especially at night.

The light emitted from your phone, laptop, tablet or other screen-lit technology tells you it’s not time to sleep yet, which is confusing to your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Using your phone right before bed—even glancing at it—makes it harder to fall asleep and causes restless sleep.

Bowl full of iPads and cell phones
Put your phone and other electronics in a parking lot before you turn in for the night.

Adequate and sound rest is crucial to feeling rested and refreshed for the next day, so consider charging your cell phone in a different location from where you sleep and avoid using it as your alarm clock whenever you can. I can tell you from personal experience that the feeling of taking a solid break and returning rested and full of ideas and ready for the next challenge is pretty amazing! 

Time off. TAKE IT!

As the only member of my family in the US, I am chided often for not spending enough time there when I take a vacation home. Most of my relatives boast at least a month of paid time off per year, which is customary in many parts of the world. I still remember the first time I told a cousin and uncle of mine that I only had about two weeks of paid leave a year. The looks on their faces made me feel like I was trying to convince them the Earth was flat! In fact, my uncle exclaimed, “Impossible! How do you get enough rest?” 

It’s true that it’s hard to get rest when there is little scheduled down time. But it’s worse when we don’t fully embrace those glorious two weeks (or whatever amount) we have. So while America works to catch up with the way the rest of the world grants vacation time, it’s critical to fully utilize this gift and TAKE TIME OFF. Oh yeah, and that means don’t work on vacation.  That’s not how vacation works.  

Photo collage of various vacation spots around the world.
Whether it’s kayaking in Canada, visiting family in a faraway land, or hiking in a local park, be sure to disconnect fully from the demands of your job and take time off.

After putting these tips into practice in my own life, I now awake in the morning in a much better frame of mind to work on solutions for my clients and I feel less harried during the day. While I sometimes accidentally slip back into bad habits, I am definitely better at disconnecting, rejuvenating, and returning to work, ready to tackle the day than I was a year ago. And these tips have given me a much better framework of what to do when I do slip. See which tips work for you as you strive to gain a healthier work-life balance. I know you’ll find yourself better prepared to Go Get The World!

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