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How Do I Keep Work From Bleeding Into My Personal Life?

There was a time when we left work at the office, and still managed to get things done. Can we go back to that simpler time?

How Do I Keep Work From Bleeding Into My Personal Life?
[Photo: Flickr usern EternalGoldenBraid]

If someone 20 years ago was told that they would be inseparable from a pocket-sized rectangle that kept them constantly connected to their jobs, they probably wouldn’t believe you.

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And while now most of us can’t imagine not checking in on work in our off hours, we are longing to get back some of that elusive work-life balance that we used to have.

In this week’s Ask The Experts advice column, psychologist Art Markman walks a reader through how to unplug from his 24/7 office culture.

Hi,

I definitely think of myself as a hard worker–I got good grades in college, have always received positive performance reviews at past jobs, etc. However, I’ve been at my current job for nine months and I feel like I’m never doing enough.

It seems to be an “always on” 24/7 culture. My philosophy has always been that I work hard when I’m in the office and when I’m not there I don’t work, but everyone here seems to be checking in and sending emails after 8pm, on the weekends, and even when they are on vacation.

I’ve let the peer pressure/guilt get to me and have started to check and respond to emails after dinner and on Sunday afternoons, which is still less than most people seem to do. I like my job, but I don’t like this feeling that work is bleeding into my personal life. I need time to disconnect. How to I do that without looking like a slacker compared to everyone else in the office?



You have expressed something that I think is an important principle for successful work in the long-term. Everyone should strive for a life in which they work when they are at work, and don’t work when they are not at work.

There are several reasons to live by this principle.

First, there is a limited amount of time that people can really sustained focused attention on work tasks over the long term. When the workday expands into a 24-hour cycle, it leads to a lot of what I call fake work, in which people sit at their desks doing things that look a lot like work, but aren’t actually productive.

Second, the workplace carries a certain amount of stress with it. It’s important to remove yourself from that stress for several hours each day to give your body a chance to relax and to pursue the kinds of desirable activities that allow you to feel joy, happiness, and fulfillment in your life.

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Third, most email communications really can wait a day (or a weekend) to be answered. The fact that an email arrives at its destination milliseconds after it was sent does not mean that it needs to be answered at the same speed.

From your letter, it doesn’t seem like I need to convince you of this, but it is important to be reminded about why the 24/7 work culture is ultimately soul-crushing and unproductive.

In every organization, expectations are set by what people say, what they do, and what they reward, and we pay attention to those factors in reverse order. No matter what people at work say is important to them, the fact that they respond to emails late at night and on weekends sends a message that people are expected to be connected to work at all times. And if the people who respond quickly are the ones who get the most recognition at work, then the reward structure is also being skewed toward those who allow work to become all-consuming.

However, this culture of complete connectedness often develops without an explicit decision that this is desirable. In fact, many company leaders want their employees to lead fulfilling lives beyond the workplace. They may not have really recognized how email, texts, and instant messages have disrupted the lives of the people who work for them.

The first step is to have a frank conversation with your supervisor. If your work is valued and the organization is happy with your productivity, then you don’t need to succumb to the pressure to respond to every email as it comes in. In fact, by responding to emails the next business day, you are sending a message to your colleagues that it is acceptable to live your life and allow work to happen during the workday. Your actions can influence other people, just as their actions are affecting you.

Second, remember that it is hard to judge other people’s productivity from the emails that they send (just as it is hard to determine how good other people’s lives are from their carefully curated Facebook profiles). When you receive emails from people at night or on weekends, it is easy to assume that they are somehow being more productive than you are. Don’t let that drive your behavior.

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Instead, every six months to a year, think about the real contributions you want to make in the workplace. Contributions are the big-picture goals you want to achieve that you will look back on with pride. Nobody will look back on their Sunday night emails as a high-point of their career.

Once you identify the contributions you want to make, carve out time on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to make progress on those contributions. Ultimately, it is the people who achieve those big-picture goals that are most satisfied with their work lives. They are able to see their work as a calling, and not just an endless collection of mundane tasks. A focus on contribution can help you avoid the guilt that comes with delaying your responses to email.

Finally, after talking with your supervisor, you may find that you are working for a company that does value 24/7 connection to work. In that case, this company may not be a good fit for you. In every industry, there is a range of successful firms that take different approaches to setting expectations about the relationship between work and life. If the values of your workplace are not a good match to your own personal values, it might be time to look for an organization that aligns with the way you want to live your life.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

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