As the world becomes more interconnected, separating one’s professional and personal lives is harder than ever. While many people still aspire to “leave their jobs at work,” not everyone is successful. Some jobs explicitly demand around-the-clock availability, and others come to a full stop when the workday ends.
Many of us are stuck in the grey area in between, and have a hard time knowing where, when — and even whether — to draw the line.
Here are three questions that can help you achieve a work-life balance that’s right for you.
1. What are you doing?
A close look at your day-to-day habits can yield surprising results. You might be spending much more time in a marginally productive “half-work” state than you realize.
For a week, keep track of all your work-related activities, including seemingly negligible tasks. Be inclusive and honest. Do you check your phone in the locker room at the gym just in case there are messages from colleagues? Do you keep your laptop on the bedroom nightstand so you can get ahead start on the next day?
Any time you spend talking or even thinking about work problems isn’t downtime — and therefore isn’t truly restful. The resulting tiredness of being perpetually in work mode can create a snowball effect, making you less productive during business hours and necessitating further catch-up work after hours.
2. Why are you doing it?
Remaining at least partially available before or after the standard workday may be an understood aspect of your job. However, in many cases the extra duty is self-imposed, driven not by business necessity but by pride in being considered a go-to person. Another common motivator, justified or not, is fear about falling behind “more committed” colleagues.
Keep in mind that your habits can influence others’ behaviour. Answering an early morning text from a co-worker may make her more likely to text you going forward instead of asking someone else or holding her question until business hours.
If you’re unsure what’s expected of you, or of how accessible you need to be after-hours, discuss the matter with your boss. You might learn that she’d rather have you fully recharge between workdays than stay within reach around the clock.
3. What’s your top priority?
Just about everyone wants to enjoy a relaxing personal life and a rewarding career. It’s entirely possible to have both. But in order to achieve the balance that works best for you, it’s helpful to ask yourself which, ultimately, is most important. The answer may change throughout your lifetime as your career and personal life evolve. Your priorities may shift as you start a family or embark on a career that has a sharper learning curve, for instance.
If you’re passionate about your work, don’t dismiss the possibility that it may become all-encompassing. For you, the work may be its own reward. If you do maintain a highly permeable work-life border, taking real (no-laptop-allowed) vacations becomes even more important as a way to prevent burnout.
Once you’ve reviewed your habits, discussed expectations with your boss and clarified your priorities, start adjusting the borders that surround your work. Doing so can take some practice, and you may have to endure some feelings of guilt or even boredom when you first disconnect.
Establishing the simplest rules possible can help you stick with your plan. For example, you might avoid checking your work email after 7 p.m. or go completely offline on weekends. Be sure to discuss changes with your boss before making them, emphasizing that you’re looking to protect your performance, not to unload responsibilities.
If your job requires you to be on call, make sure people know how to reach you in the event of a crisis. That way, you can be more secure knowing that if they need to reach you, they will. You don’t have to check every email.
Ideally, protecting your time off in a sensible way will help you not only start enjoying downtime more but also start having more fun at work. Before long, you might even find that your career and personal life begin to nourish each other, rather than just competing for your time.