Can't Leave At 5:30? Three Alternative Ways To Set Healthy Work Boundaries

Sheryl Sandberg leaves work at 5:30. Barbara Corcoran shuts off her phone for half the day. And that rascal Tim Ferriss somehow gets away with only working four hours a week (allegedly). But they're all superstars. Here's what normal people can do to set healthy work boundaries.

"Bravo to Sheryl Sandberg for leaving work at 5:30," CNN applauded in a recent headline. That's just one of many headlines congratulating the chief operating officer at Facebook for leaving work at a reasonable hour to spend time with her kids. During our most recent episode of Work Flow, Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran shared her weekday ritual of turning off her phone from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. to focus on her family. For a few years now, author Tim Ferriss has teased us with the 4-hour fantasy—the 4-hour work week and the 4-hour body—with "Superhuman" recipes for outsourcing your life and achieving a sexy shape.

As I look toward my own professional networks, I see an opposite trend. From work days that end at midnight to 60-hour workweeks, the winning recipe for many workers is, well, a lot of hard work. There are few shortcuts, even fewer opportunities to work less, and, unless you're the boss, turning off for long periods isn't always well-received.

I'm not saying that the Sandbergs, Corcorans, and Ferrisses of the world don't work hard. Quite the opposite. Clearly they've hustled for years, propelling themselves into fantastic careers that I would argue finally give them the opportunity to design their lives with the freedom they've shared as of late. Most of us aren't "there" yet.

Fortunately, it is possible to maintain some type of balance in our lives, even if it doesn't free up all nights and some days. Here are three ways "normal people" can establish boundaries to move away from what feels like a 24-hour workday.

1. Analyze Your Time

Before you can tweak the design of your days, you need to properly understand how much time you're being productive and how much time you're wasting. You can use tools such as RescueTime for better time management, which will give you insight into what you're doing with your computer time and motivation to avoid distractions. Or perhaps you need to go old school once in a while and use, gasp, a paper and pen to block your time throughout the day. In any event, a high-tech or low-tech solution can help you to be more efficient. While working smarter may not allow you to leave work at 5:30 p.m. every day, it might help you achieve an early departure a couple of times a week.

2. Schedule—And Stick To—Short Breaks

Whether you're working at home or in the office, stepping away now and again is one of the most important ways to achieve balance. Shutting down for 12 hours throughout the night might not be realistic, but when you get home from work turn off your smartphone and computer for an hour or two while you play with your kids. (I wrote this post early in the morning while taking mini-breaks to play robot-fighting heroes with my 3-year-old son.) Not only will they appreciate it, but it will help to re-energize you for what might be an hour or two of work well into the evening.

While this late-night schedule might make some workers cringe, I think it's fair to say that this is the norm for a lot business professionals—and especially entrepreneurs—today. Throughout the day take mini-breaks to get up and away from your computer, take a walk or grab a healthy snack; if you can find time to work out, even better. Will this help you get a "Superhuman" body? Probably not, but it's manageable, and most importantly, realistic for most.

3. Make Small Changes

It's becoming more common for employers to allow employees a little more flexibility to work at home, whether you're taking care of a sick kid or just choosing to have a day out of the office to get more done. If you have the option to design your week with one at-home workday, this can help enormously with achieving balance in your life. Whether you're throwing in a load of laundry before a conference call or skipping out over lunch to get groceries, this can give you more time with your family in the evenings and on the weekends. While not every employer is open to this scenario, it can't hurt to ask. Thanks to modern technology, working from home one day a week is a reality for many and a gift when striving for work-life balance.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Crum]

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  • republik163

    Why don't Americans use the 24 Hour clock correctly, 5:30 is 17:30?
    This is very confusing when looking at US transport timetables for example.

  • Samantha

    I almost killed myself over my work, lost the relationship with my oldest daughter, my husband and my friends. Then one day ended up in hospital where I remained for 3 months fighting a stress induced SUPER BUG type illness that almost destroyed me. My internal organs were shutting down and I was completely and for the first time out of control.
    No I make it my business to negotiate a work life balance that suits me, the kids, the hubby and my employer.
    For me, it doesnt matter where you produce the work, as long as you produce it and produce it well. Amazing things are possible when we can clear our minds and focus. No meetings, no uninvited desk drop ins and whether the kids are home with you or not, I find creativity booms.
    I wont work for anyone that doesnt believe in a work life balance program at work. After all if the business needs are met and it can be done then do it.
    This way of working ensures the longevity of my career, my input to the business and my family values remain in tact.
    Great article

  • Amber King

    Time management is the key. We should learn how to schedule our time, prioritize our work and finish our tasks at a given time. This can be done by other people too.

  • Maria

    I manage the operations for  a 100% virtual company called Mom Corps.  Giving people the ability to work from home has given us a huge competitive advantage.  Our people are more focused, productive and creative because they are free to manage their time as needed without the pressure of "face time".  In addition, now that we are a franchised company, we have found that the people that are attracted to our concept also believe that they can work hard and have a life and that becoming a business owner is the easiest way to get there.    

  • rifodesign

    after one week of running the tips of the left at 5:30 this. I get the happiness back in my family. I can see the development of my two children. How do they now can read very well. I highly recommend you to do things in.

  • Amber Mac

    Thanks for all the feedback, lots of interesting comments.  For me, in a few years I've gone from working full-time for a demanding employer to running my own small business, have never been happier!


  • Sarah McNeil

    I really liked how this article got me
    thinking.  In the last year, I went from a
    fast-paced, “always on” career in advertising/PR to start my own consulting
    practice. I can only speak about my own experience, but here are the three
    things that I’ve learned (related to this article) in that process.

    Analyze Your Values: Before you can
    determine the best design for living/working, you need to spend the time to understand
    what’s most important to you and think about how to align your actions and time with those
    values. Until you do this, you will never find the “right balance” in work or
    any aspect of your life. Sometimes aligning your life with your values means
    you give up some things (like money, etc.), but if you are willing to take the
    risk to follow what you care about most, my
    experience is you gain so much more...freedom, gratitude, opportunities and more. 

    Focus and Stick to Your Schedule: Mini
    breaks might be good for some people. My experience though, is when not on a
    client site and am working from my home office, if  I take a “short break” from my work to play a
    quick game with my five-year-old, my head is still back on work and I am not
    present and she feels it. Nobody wins. When I jump from task to task, I am not
    fully present. Creativity goes down, anxiety goes up. However, when I set and
    stick to a schedule, focus on the job at hand and am able to cross items
    off my list as they are completed, I feel good. And if I keep up the bargain with myself to do my very best to stick to that schedule,
    I am also able to focus on non-work activites that are important to me, fun and bring me happiness.

    Don’t be Afraid to Make Big Changes: Aligning
    your work with your values may require big changes. For some people, it may be
    asking for what you need in order to be a more effective, productive, fulfilled
    employee. It may sometimes mean not living up to what you think is expected of you in the world of work...and being okay with that. Or, depending on what you do and the industry you’re in, it may mean taking a leap, trusting in your intuition and working for yourself.

  • Aviva

    Interesting. I like the tips, but why are these alternative? If they're alternative, it seems that would mean they are optional, and although I don't believe everyone has to use a time-management tool or app, we should all analyze our time, take breaks, and make small changes. Painting this advice as tips can make it seem like we'll do best with or without these approaches, and most of us are not doing optimally without these approaches. We are overworked, overstretched, overstressed and constantly trying to find our way back to the place of zeal about our work or careers, if we had it in the first place.

    I like the practicality and realistic nature of these steps, and when I integrate time analysis, incremental breaks, moments of disconnection and location and day flexibility into my approach to work and career, I succeed more, and with more quality. But until we can stop viewing work and life as two things on either side of a slash mark preceding the word balance, I think these steps are nearly necessary, not optional.

  • Dwight D. Moore

    "I'm not saying that the Sandbergs, Corcorans, and Ferriss' of the world don't work hard. Quite the opposite. Clearly they've hustled for years, propelling themselves into fantastic careers that I would argue finally give them the opportunity to design their lives with the freedom they've shared as of late. Most of us aren't "there" yet."
    That's very disappointing, and comes across elitist. It's implied that those who never "get there" should always work long hours for "the man" (or the "woman"). This is less about leadership, than it is about the class system. Let's hear about how leaders of people (as opposed to individual contributors) enable their teams to have better work life balance. That's a better story. 

  • Bob Jacobson

    I was taken by this comment from the author:

    "I'm not saying that the Sandbergs, Corcorans, and Ferriss' of the world don't work hard. Quite the opposite. Clearly they've hustled for years, propelling themselves into fantastic careers that I would argue finally give them the opportunity to design their lives with the freedom they've shared as of late. Most of us aren't 'there' yet."

    Well, when will "most of us" get there?  The honest answer is, never.  At least not so long as we take it upon ourselves to solve every problem in the workplace, including disproportionate demands on our time and our lives by those who profit by them.  I'm currently working in Sweden where strict rules are negotiated between owners, managers, and workers -- in fact, the hierarchy exists mainly on paper -- that ensure de facto 35 hour weeks, weekends absolutely free of work intrusions, and six to eight weeks of paid vacation, not including official holidays.  Nevertheless, people here are hard workers, exceptionally savvy in terms of work technology, and generally purposeful in the office, field, or factory.  They just insist on having time for themselves, their friends and families, for causes that matter to them, and for recreation.  They struggled for awhile at the turn of the century until capital, management, and labor realized that everyone benefits by a healthy, content, largely self-managed workforce.  

    Articles like this one take an entirely different tack and one that is historically unsuccessful, to try and carve out your own lifestyle needs coming from a position of industrial and organizational weakness.  Good luck with that.  A very few non-wealthy will succeed.  The rest will join the growing ranks of America's disaffected workers or worse, the unemployed.  Until they get wise and organize.  History, again.

  • Nathaniel B

    Absolute truth right here. It's disgusting how North
    America essentially has been set up so that your life is dictated by your
    "superiors". That's why it's so important that if you want to be
    truly free, truly spend time with your family, truly be able to turn off the
    phone for 12 hours a day, you set off to work for your own self. Personally, I’d
    rather work 12 hours a day for myself, building my *own* wealth, and answering
    to *myself* when I need to go and get something done like an oil change or groceries.

    One thing's for sure, you work hard you will generate wealth, but the question is who is getting that wealth - you or someone else.