Let’s start by stating the obvious: There are some things that are impossible about living and working in the same place. For example, if you’re trying to do your job and care for or educate young children at the same time, there are enormous obstacles and challenges. And if you’re a single parent or solo caregiver who has to manage your household and the people in it on your own, the challenges are even more daunting, especially when the pandemic still makes it tough to ask or hire people outside your home to help.
At the same time, there are some recommendations and research about things we can change. And even a few small changes may give us better boundaries when it comes to separating work and life, says Gorick Ng, a Harvard career adviser and author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.
The elements that gave us a sense of separation and compartmentalization—commuting time bookending the day, different routines on weekdays vs. weekends, etc.—are largely gone for many people, Ng says. As a result, we need to find our own ways to create some of these separations in ways that suit our own circumstances, he says. Here are a few simple moves that may help you find some boundaries again:
Check yourself first
Before you start working on the boundaries, there are two key factors you need to analyze, Ng says. First, think about whether you’re a “work-life balance” person or a “work-life integration” person. In other words, are you looking for ways to create more defined work hours and personal time? Or are you looking for ways to blend them that don’t feel like work is encroaching on every area of your life? These are questions of personal identity. And if you’re an entrepreneur or someone with a demanding job, striving to totally separate your work from every evening and weekend may not be feasible. So, first understand what you’re striving for and make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure by creating boundaries that aren’t realistic, Ng says.
Get clear on expectations
Similarly, you need to understand the environment and culture in which you’re working. If you’re surrounded by workaholics, you may have some work to do to train others that you are not available at certain times. So, look at what the people around you are doing and notice their patterns of behaviors, Ng says. Then you can begin to parse whether the expectation is that you match the always-on hours or whether that is just a habit others have that is not expected of you. That can relieve some of the pressure we put on ourselves.
Focus on output vs. time
Also, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to have a conversation with your manager about your workflow and how much can reasonably be done in a day. Without the visual cues that you’re working too much, your manager may not realize you’re struggling. It’s a good time to shift the focus to outcomes as a measure of productivity and effectiveness, says Stefanie Coleman, director of PwC’s Financial Services People and Organisation practice.
When it comes to her team, “I measure their productivity and their effectiveness based on what they produce, not how long it takes them to do it,” she says. “The permission that I give my team is, you, you work when it suits you. If it needs to be in the night because you have personal commitments during the day, or you need a couple of days off for wellbeing purposes, that’s fine. Let’s just figure out when we can get the work done.” For people who are looking for more integration to tend to all their needs, that may be a solution. It means that you don’t have to be on the job at the same time all the time.
Chart your day
Sometimes, working solo, trying to juggle life’s other responsibilities, and feeling constantly on call through multiple communication channels can easily lead to feeling overwhelmed, says Kevin Oakes, CEO and co-founder of HR research firm i4cp and author of Culture Renovation, 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakable Company. Multiple communication channels—email, instant messaging, Slack, and others—”flatten the hierarchy” and make virtually anyone accessible to anyone else at any time, he says. Ideally, organizations will recognize that they need to create psychologically safe environments for people to share when they’re overloaded, he adds.
But how do you quantify when you’re overloaded? Sometimes, remote workers juggling so many other responsibilities can lose sight of what constitutes a reasonable day’s work. As previously reported in Fast Company, research by productivity blog I Done This found that 41% of to-do list items never get done. Tracking your activities and time-blocking your calendar can give you a fresh sense of how long things are taking you and what you can realistically accomplish in a day. And, while you’re at it, spend a little time at the end of the day planning your next day, too.
Stop the noise
You know this, but you might not do it: Turn off your notifications when you’re trying to get away from work. A June 2020 study from the University of Chicago found that those seemingly innocuous distractions can have a truly negative impact on your well-being “When work intrudes after hours in the form of pings and buzzes from smartphone alerts, it can cause spikes of stress that lead to a host of adverse effects for workers, including negative work rumination, poor affect, and insomnia,” the study found.
Silence the dings, vibrations, and beeps, Oakes says. If you have a public-facing calendar, use it to show when you are and aren’t available. Do the same with your IM, Slack, or other channels that help you let others know when you’re not on-call.
To help fight that temptation to drift back to your work, especially during downtime, schedule in rituals that help you mark the end of your day, Coleman says. We don’t have commute times to help us transition from work to home life. But we all have rituals that can be used as such markers, she says, “whether it’s taking care of your kids, or doing a bit of meditation every day, or taking your dog for a walk around the block. We all have these more daily rituals that help us to destress.”
These types of signals that it’s time to stop work (or, if you’re shooting for a more blended approach, that it’s time to shift gears for a while), can help you create those transition periods in your day.
Integrate some accountability
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned (or should have learned) during the past year, it’s to ask for whatever help we can get, Oakes says. Share your goal to get away from your desk with confidantes, friends, or family members and ask them to nudge you to stick to it. Some organizations may also have peer coaching or mentoring programs where you can ask for help, too.
Such simple actions and changes might not give you a traditional 9-to-5 job overnight, but they will allow you to evaluate where you are and remove some of the habits and obstacles that are making work feel nonstop.