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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