With some jobs, you truly do have to be available to work 24/7: think doctor on an on-call day. But most jobs don’t require giving your work this level of access to your personal time. So why is it that many people—likely you if you’re reading this article—feel like they’re never really able to turn work off completely?
In my work as a time management coach, I see that this “work creep” falls into two big buckets: work you need to complete, and interruptions from others who want something from you. With both buckets, you can proactively reduce the amount of time work intrudes in your personal life with some simple, yet powerful, time management strategies.
Work you need to complete
If work outside of when you want to be working happens primarily due to your own uncompleted tasks, you’ll need to push back more during the workday to protect your time after hours.
1. Know what you need to do
The first step to avoiding working outside of work is to know exactly what needs to be accomplished for the week. Increasing your awareness of what might keep you up at night or working on the weekend allows you to not have it surprise you at the end of the day or the end of the week. Then if possible, look for open blocks of time in your calendar when you can complete the work—for example, an hour gap between meetings or an open morning. If you don’t have any open time, then you’ll need to begin blocking time out in your calendar if you want to have any hope of getting work done at work.
2. Hide from people
Once you have time blocked, you’ll need to work to protect it, including potentially declining meetings that people try to set during that time. In many work environments, it can be hard to get work done at your desk because of the number of interruptions. You may need to take it a bit further and find a place to hide. That could look like simply closing your door (if you have one), finding a conference room, a quiet area of the building with empty desks, or even working from home or at a coffee shop. Remember: If you don’t hide from people at work, you’ll end up hiding from your family and friends outside of work because you still have stuff to get done.
3. Get out of your inbox
During your work time when you are trying to get tasks done, limit the amount of time you spend being responsive. Offices have different standards so some people may truly need to be instantly responsive. Generally, however, giving yourself 30 (or even 60) minutes away from answering email or other forms of communication is acceptable. That way you’re keeping space open at work to complete tasks and slowing the churn on items that may not be that important.
With the above three strategies, you may not eliminate tasks you need to complete outside of work but you can greatly reduce them.
People who want something
Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them. If work creeps into your personal life because of others’ uncompleted work, then you’ll need to put a greater emphasis on pushing back during the hours when you want to be off.
1. Ask what people need
Instead of assuming that people will come to you with enough time to get help, go to them first. If you’re a manager, ask your direct reports what kind of feedback they will need from you. Also, let them know when you will need to receive things in order to review them. Getting something at 10 p.m. that needs to go out to a client the next morning is a recipe for grumpiness. If you’re on a project team, get clear on where your colleagues may need something from you, and prioritize that work during your day. It’s ideal for people to come to you, but if they’re not traditionally proactive, you can take the initiative to find out what’s needed from you.
2. Do what you said you will do
You teach people what to expect from you. If you said that you will get feedback to them by a certain time, keep that commitment. If you said that you wouldn’t check email after 6 p.m., stay off of it.
If you consistently demonstrate through your actions that you do what you say you will do, people learn that you’re serious. On the other hand, if you don’t do what you say you will do, people will expect that it’s okay for them to turn things in late because you do the same. Or they will learn that you will check for their work on the weekends even though you said you wouldn’t.
3. Unplug from work
Ideally, you can have a separate phone and computer for work. That way you can leave one or both tools at the office—or at least keep them in your laptop bag. If for some reason that isn’t possible, you can at least do things like shut off work email notifications when you’re done for the day or the week.
In some cases, you do need to know what’s going on. But in many cases, situations can wait. If you don’t know about them, they either figure themselves out, or you can attend to them when you return to the office.
Using these strategies, you may not prevent all work creep due to other people’s emergencies, but you can at least prevent a great deal of it. It’s time to work hard on the job and then give yourself permission to be off the clock.