The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly and forever changed the definition of how we work.
More of us are working from home. Some of us have even moved away from the cities and offices that we once crafted our lives around and have since fully embraced distributed work as our new reality. Two years into this paradigm shift, it’s becoming clear that many of us will continue to work from home even after the pandemic ends.
But when all of our work happens at home, it's easy for the lines between work and life to become blurred. We start responding to Slack notifications while making dinner. We slowly begin checking emails first thing in the morning, straight from bed. We find ourselves reviewing code while out on an evening walk.
The convenience of being able to work anytime and anywhere comes at a cost. When work isn’t constrained, it can quickly consume our personal time – crucial and important time that each and every one of us needs to recover, rest, and recuperate. The ‘living at work’ phenomenon means that work is encroaching on our personal lives more than ever.
Setting healthy boundaries at work can help us feel more balanced and grounded when it comes to our jobs. Every relationship needs boundaries; they help us understand a person’s limits, expectations, and values. And our relationship with work is no different.
Boundaries are crucial when it comes to maintaining healthy work habits, cultivating a sustainable work-life balance, and avoiding the consequences of burnout. Whether you’re a seasoned individual contributor or a new manager, here are my top tips for creating these essential boundaries:
1. Constrain your space
Limiting where we do our work is a great first step. For example, restricting yourself to only working from a specific room (an office, if you have the luxury of space), or a single location (like a desk that’s only reserved for office work), can help you create a physical boundary around your job. By constraining where we do our work, our bodies and minds can begin to delineate when we are in ‘work’ mode versus ‘life’ mode.
2. Constrain your time
It’s also important to restrict your work in terms of time. Studies show that working more doesn’t make you better or more efficient at your job. In fact, research shows that workers who put in more than 50 hours a week see a sharp decline in their productivity.
After you’ve defragged your calendar, figure out when you need to do your work. Whether you work in continuous chunks of time or in sections throughout the day, respect your own time by being disciplined about not working outside of your set working hours. Remember that working more does not necessarily mean working effectively – in fact, trying to work more often leads to diminishing returns. Treat your energy as a finite resource that needs to be managed.
3. Constrain your digital availability
Even after you’ve confined your work to a specific space and certain hours of the day, you still might find that you are thinking about and checking in on work-related things outside of those constraints. Even if you’re not sitting in your office at your work computer, you might find yourself reaching for your email or opening Slack to check your messages – perhaps without even realizing it!
We can constrain our work even further by restricting all work-related content to our work devices. Since removing my work Slack, email, and calendar from my personal phone a few months ago, I’ve noticed that I rarely think about work on the weekends or during my off-hours.
When I do think about my job, I have to make a concerted effort to go into my office and open my work computer to do anything, which forces me to think twice about if I really need to log on to send that message or review that GitHub pull request, or whether I can wait until the next morning (I almost always can). Establishing this practice has also helped me not overwork and exhaust myself by being continuously online and available.
4. Detaching your identity from work
Many of us associate our self-worth and identity with our jobs. And without boundaries between ourselves and our work, it’s easy to lose the part of ourselves that exists outside of our work. Detaching from work is an important practice in avoiding all of these pitfalls, and is something to constantly work at.
For me, detaching from work means not only establishing and following the boundaries that I set, but also using my personal time to do things that I enjoy, that energize me, and that help me feel rested.
This is something that takes time and practice, but ultimately, a detachment with my work is the foundation that I build all my boundaries upon. It helps me remember why I have boundaries in the first place, what my own personal values are, and where my limits and expectations with work lie.
Whenever you feel compelled to break a boundary that you’ve set, remind yourself that you are not your job. The more you detach your sense of self from your work, the easier it will become to believe this, and the more natural your boundaries will feel.