How to Set Boundaries When All You Do is Work

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
June 13, 2024 at 12:59PM UTC
If you've ever found yourself drowning in work, you may wonder, "How can I work less or set boundaries between my work and personal lives?" This is especially likely to be the case if you find yourself seemingly always "on" for work, answering emails, taking calls and constantly available for people's questions.
Should you find yourself in this situation, it's worth thinking about how to strike a better work-life balance. Here's why this is important and what you'll get out of it.

The point (and history) of work.

For many, the point of work is both practical and personal. On a practical level, work provides the financial means that allow us to live our lives. For most people, the realities of rent, grocery bills and more require them to hold a job in order to earn a paycheck to pay for life expenses. 
On a personal level, many regard work as something that provides gives meaning to their lives. The American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson certainly thought this was the case. He wrote, "The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

The importance of a work-life balance.

However, although work is both practically necessary and personally fulfilling for many people, it's also important to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Given the studies showing that overwork harms us in multiple ways (and the fact that overwork can literally kill us), it's important to maintain a healthy work-life balance in order to protect our health, sanity and well-being.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance helps reduce stress, prevents burnout and actually leads to higher overall workplace productivity. Keeping stress levels in check is particularly important because chronic stress — one of the most common workplace health issues — leads to a range of physical and mental consequences, including hypertension, digestive issues, chronic aches and pains, heart problems, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
For millennials (those born from 1981-2000), work-life balance can be especially elusive because they tend to be at the lowest rungs of their organizations. They're often still at the point in their careers where they're told they have to "pay their dues," which is often understood to mean working long, often thankless hours with little job security. Due to the combination of job insecurity (a lesson that was ingrained particularly deeply into the minds of those millennials who entered the workforce during the global financial crises of the late 2000s) and their lack of seniority at work, millennials are particularly susceptible to poor work-life balance.

7 ways to set boundaries around work.

1. Define your own sense of what work-life balance means

Before you can set boundaries around work, you need to define what work-life balance means to you. The exact definition of work-life balance is likely to be a little different for everyone. For some people, it may be about physical time spent at work. For others, it may be more about time spent working outside work. And for yet others, it may be about something else altogether, such as on-call hours each month. In HerMoney, Julie Cohen, a career and leadership coach, suggests figuring out what you need to feel that your life is in balance and then prioritizing those needs in order to achieve the right work-life balance for yourself.

2. Set "off" hours for yourself.

Regardless of how busy you are, you can always find time to pursue the activities that you need to recharge yourself. As with the definition of work-life balance, this is likely to look different for each person. For some people, it may mean no work emails at home. For others, it may mean no work phones at the dinner table so everyone can be present for family dinners. And for others still, it may mean not working on weekends. The trick here is to figure out what's workable with the demands of your job and configuring your "off" hours in such a way as to not interfere with your ability to meet your work obligations.

3. Participate in leisure activities that improve your on-the-job performance.

Research published in Reviews in the Neurosciences has shown that participating in certain types of leisure activities — such as strenuous physical activity and creative endeavors like writing and playing music — improves on-the-job performance for executives and scientists. You can apply these findings to your own life by participating in leisure activities that reinvigorate your mind, allow you to stretch your creativity and unwind so you can return to your job with a refreshed outlook.

4. Be strict about taking time for yourself.

When things get busy at work, it can be tempting to skip taking time off to tend to your own needs. However, this is a mistake. Refusing to compromise your personal priorities may, in fact, earn you more respect from your colleagues. As evidence of this, consider Ernst & Young CEO Mark  Weinberger: after a meeting in China, Weinberger skipped sightseeing with coworkers in order to take his daughter to her driving test. Although no one remembered the speech he gave at the meeting, they did remember the care and attention he gave to his family.

5. Don't get caught up in competing over being busy.

Some workplaces place an unreasonable (and pointless) emphasis on "face time" or maintaining the appearance of busyness even if you're not actually busy. Don't allow yourself to get sucked into this trap. As long as you're meeting your work obligations and impressing your boss, you don't need to stay late for the sake of staying late. 

6. Work smart to maximize your day.

Being highly efficient during your normal workday is one of the best ways to ensure a good work-life balance. The more work you get done during normal working hours, the less you'll be tempted — or required — to work after hours.

7. Prioritize your time and to-dos.

The busier you are, the more disciplined you have to be about your time. To achieve this, prioritizing your tasks and making effective use of task prioritization to tackle high-value tasks first will maximize the return you get on your work. As a starting point, organize your tasks into four categories: 1) urgent and important, 2) important but not urgent, 3) urgent but not important and 4) neither urgent nor important. Work in descending order, and move tasks into new categories as needed.
Armed with these tips, as well as a healthy appreciation for the importance of work-life balance, you're now set to enjoy some well-deserved time away from your work. You — and those who care about you — will be better off for it.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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