Tips for Work Life Balance: How to use boundaries to manage the always-on feeling
Learning the best tips for work life balance can sometimes come by accident. Many moons ago I was a young, single mom taking my first uncomfortable step into a new role. A role I didn’t think I was qualified for but knew I needed to be challenged. It was my first interview for a manager position. Since I already worked on the team I knew the hiring manager was a retired military guy who prided himself on contacting his managers at all hours of the night. I also knew that I only got 2 hours a day with my little munchkins before their bedtime.
Sure enough, he asked me in the interview about being available in my evening hours. I provided my candid response (as I’m notorious for doing) and let him know that I was unavailable between 5p and 7:30p unless contacted by phone for urgent issues. Everyone thought I was nuts for holding to a firm boundary on my time but I did get the job. And he did respect my boundary. Looking back, I don’t think I would have had the guts to hold to my conviction if my reason had not been so large. But it taught me early in my career that boundaries are more than okay, they are my sanity space! They are a key tip for work life balance in this day and age.
Even before COVID-19 the research around the concept of being “always-on” for work was showing negative impacts at home. The more employees used their smart devices to check into work the higher the spousal resentment and conflict between family members. That was before everyone was stuck at home together! Now, even more than ever, we need tips for work life balance.
Technology is the invention that threatens our times outside of work.
Laptops are right there making it easy to “just respond to a couple emails.” Next thing you know it’s been 2 hours. It should have been your time to unwind or spend time with your family or be outside. Anything but work. Cell phones, of course, have had a huge impact in the ease of plugging back into work during family time. We keep them with us at all times and those little “dings” to signify a new email beckon to us during all hours of the day. So how can we create an environment that allows us to thrive both at work and at home?
Let’s talk about boundaries. What are they and how do they help us? Boundaries are used to define, protect and care for ourselves. They can be static or fluid, they can change over time and they can vary in different settings. A great example is my physical space boundary. I’m a hugger outside of work so my physical space boundary is way more relaxed with my friends and family. At work I’m a handshake and a high-five kinda person (for many reasons).
Physical boundaries are used to protect our mental energy and our mental energy plays directly into our emotional well-being.
I’m going to focus on two main boundaries today (physical and mental) and only touch on the emotional boundary.
We’ll start with our physical boundaries as the first tips for work life balance. It’s important to understand that we are multi-dimensional creatures. Those dimensions often have a physical location tied to them. We’re an employee at work. We’re in friend mode at book club or biking group or out for drinks. We’re in spouse mode at home or parent mode at home, etc.
Each dimension that makes up who we are has a physical location change that typically ties into it, at least on occasion. It involves a shift or transition (even if sometimes the shift is mental and not physical). When those transitions are missing or the lines are too blurry to tell then we have lost a physical boundary to protect our mental energy. Think of physical spaces, transitions, walls/doors, and even personal space.
Tip # 1: Key Physical Boundaries
- Designated work space
- Get dressed
- Set work hours
- Sticking to work hours
If you commute to an office then you have a transition, set work hours, and a set space that you work in (and therefore a set space for “home” life). You may or may not, however, be sticking to your work hours due to smart devices. We’ll get to that little problem in a minute.
Your goal is to be in “work mode” at work so that you are maximizing what you can accomplish. That means that you need to have a clear boundary of where/when work is. I know this is not always easy but even with 4 kids and lots of projects outside of work, I have managed to stick to this most of the time. We all have off days where even a little fairy dust couldn’t get our brains to focus but that shouldn’t be every day. And if it is, then you probably need to dig into the source of that.
You can see from the boundaries listed above that it gets more complicated when you work from home. That’s where you must assess your routines and determine how you can integrate these boundaries in a way that makes sense for you, your work and the demands on your time.
You can create a commute by taking a short walk before and after work. Doing deep breathing or meditation for a couple minutes is enough to help if longer transitions aren’t realistic for you.
Designated work space:
There should be a set place for you to work that is separate from your family/alone time. If you work at the kitchen table where you also eat your meals then you’ve already blurred the line between work and home time. If you work at the dining room table where nothing else happens (besides holding laundry) then you’re not blurring any lines.
Don’t underestimate the power of just getting dressed each morning. It’s a great way to get your brain in “work mode.”
Set work hours:
This creates either a physical transition to and from the office at set hours or creates a mental transition. If you have to make a decision about when to start or stop work then you instantly using up mental energy for something that doesn’t need it (obviously, not everyone has the luxury of consistent work hours but as long as you do then you should be capitalizing on it). Work hours should be a set-it-and-forget-it decision. My days can be easily hijacked by field issues but otherwise, I have set hours.
Stick to work hours:
It is not a boundary if you’re crossing it all the time. If it’s a little sketch at work to have set hours then talk with your boss and find an agreeable approach. Out of office replies are a great way to ensure your peers and others are aware of when you’re available (by specifying work hours) or you can at least state that responses may be delayed in order to give yourself some breathing room. If work demands more than daytime hours then having a set time that you check email in the evening is another option.
The key is that you take time to be out of “work mode” and enjoy life. I have all notifications turned off on my phone except phone calls and text messages. I don’t need the constant reminder that there are things happening at work and on social media. This goes a long way to preserve mental energy because I have a clear boundary set. My bosses and peers know to call or text me outside of work hours (because I’ve been very consistent with this all these years).
So now we’re going to take a look at mental boundaries as the second tip for work life balance. These are more about protecting mental energy through awareness because it’s our physical boundaries that play the bigger role in mental energy. We all have a set amount of mental energy to use for the day and we typically deplete it all. The only way to renew this energy is through sleep. So if we have a finite resource that’s needed for everything throughout the day, it makes sense to be aware of what is using up this resource and how we can give it little boosts.
Tip #2: Key mental boundaries
- High and low energy hours
- Tasks, people, projects that boost and drain your energy
- Decisions (delete, delegate, do)
- Supportive outlets
High and low energy hours:
As a morning person, I know that I get my best window for focus around 8a-11a. For others, it might be 8p-11p. Either way, it’s important to know this about yourself so that you can create your day around your best hours.
Energy drains and boosts:
Same with your awareness around things that boost your energy vs drain your energy. Tackling a project that has you in the growth zone (aka uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating) during your low energy hours is only going to result in mediocre results, if any. Likewise, if you know you’re stepping into a meeting with a person that irritates every fiber of your being then it’d be wise to take that boosting 10-minute walk before you step into the meeting. But it all starts with awareness.
A big deal in mental energy are the decisions we make every day. We make dozens of them and they all require the same amount of energy. Our brains don’t use more energy for important decisions and less energy for pointless ones (like red umbrella in your drink or blue?). Steve Jobs had this figured out and removed the decision of what to wear each morning (example of deleting the decision). Not that we all have to wear jeans and a black turtleneck everyday but it would go a long way to streamline your wardrobe to remove extensive decisions each morning (or evening if you’re a planner).
For myself, the decisions around meals drive me bonkers. We have a set of breakfasts that are always stocked in the fridge, the kids do their own lunches, and I use an app for dinner planning. I don’t want to deal with it and it’s a huge energy drain for me. That wouldn’t work if cooking is your big boost each day but there are probably other areas that you could delegate. Keep the really important and really inspiring decisions for yourself and delete or delegate the rest.
Anyone that has needed to focus on a task but been constantly interrupted is well aware of the frustration that comes with distractions. Or if you’re procrastinating then it’s the welcomed distractions. They are very real and they are everywhere! Some of this will play into the physical space that you’re working in but much of the rest is the tiny stuff. Many moons ago I turned off the email notifications on my desktop at work. Every time it would pop up I HAD to look at it and take my focus off of my work. I felt like such a rebel when I turned it off that I even felt that I needed to tell my boss (this was before I learned the valuable life lesson of asking forgiveness instead of permission- where appropriate).
That one small move opened up a whole world of possibilities for me! It was like giving me the keys to the kingdom of focus. Since then I have turned off all notifications except calls and text messages. It. Is. Liberating! A new Snapchat your phone pings when there’s the Facebook message your phone buzzes when there’s an Instagram post your phone dings plus email, text messages and phone calls. Plus your desktop, laptop and tablets. Just do it….turn it all off (yeaaaaaah, sexy)! You can thank me later.
Whether work friends or lifelong friends, these connections are imperative to supporting your mental energy. The nice thing about having connections at work is that your vent session is even more helpful because they know your work environment and can relate to the specific stressors (or people). Having friends that live life with you can be invaluable for knowing your blind spots (areas of improvement that we sometimes miss) as well. Plus, we’re more likely to listen to those who speak out of love into areas of our lives that we need to make some improvements.
As a reminder… Physical boundaries are used to protect our mental energy and our mental energy plays directly into our emotional well-being.
Becoming aware of your mental energy will lead to realizations involving your emotional well-being. This is less about tips to balance work life but more about how it can benefit you once you do. One example here is understanding that when we are low on energy we are also more likely to be triggered. Being triggered is a moment in which you react instead of respond logically.
Think of the moments where you end up yelling at a kid because they just lied again (not that I’m familiar with this or anything). Or, less dramatically, when a comment is made in a meeting and it sends your brain into a flurry and removes you from the conversation. You might see this manifest in being more easily angered. Some people get very flush when they’re triggered and others show no signs at all.
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