How to create effective work-life boundaries

Struggling to stop professional tasks encroaching on your personal time? Check out these five tips for establishing clear, positive boundaries with colleagues and clients

Working from home has become the new norm for many during the past 18 months. But, while there are advantages to this increased flexibility, it also has its downsides.

For many people, the freedom to spend more time with the family is undercut by the frequent pinging of email notifications, and the pressure to be ‘always on’.

When you work remotely and aren’t often physically available to your colleagues or manager, it’s tempting to try and compensate for this by responding to every message you receive within minutes. However, this can play havoc with work-life balance.

How long hours affect lives

In spring 2021, research into the realities of working from home found that people were spending longer ‘at work’ than they did before the pandemic. In the UK, Canada, USA and Austria, the average length of time employees spent logged on to their computers increased by around two hours a day.

The blurring of our work and home lives is cause for serious concern, according to a World Health Organisation study. Its 2021 report showed that 745,000 people died in 2016 from strokes and heart disease. It linked the conditions to long working hours.

The research found that – compared to a working week of 35 to 40 hours – working 55 hours or more per week was associated with a 35% increase in the risk of stroke and a 17% increase in the risk of dying from heart disease.

Conversely, cultures where work-life balance is protected tend to enjoy better health outcomes. In France, where life expectancy is above average for Europe, the 35-hour working week was enshrined in 2000. In January 2017, the French government’s famous ‘right to disconnect’ law came into force. This limits the use of work emails, seeking to prevent people from reading and replying to messages during time off.

Establishing effective boundaries

Establishing a clear line between work and the rest of your life can help to mitigate the creep of professional tasks into personal time.

According to a 2020 study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, having control over your boundaries is a key way to minimise the stress caused by a work-life imbalance.

Setting boundaries can be easier said than done. However, these five tips should help.

1. Build a regular routine

Some people like to start each day with a three-mile run, while others can barely move before they’ve drunk a strong coffee. Whatever works for you, prioritise it above checking your email and instant messages first thing in the morning.

Defining the time at which you’ll start work means you’ll begin the day feeling more in control. Likewise, physically closing your laptop at the end of the day – and leaving it behind a closed door, if possible – is a habit that will help you switch off your professional persona.

With hybrid working now embedded in the cultures of companies as diverse as Google and Standard Chartered bank, more and more people will likely find they have access to flexible workspaces, post-pandemic.

Spending some time at a local flexspace is a good way to invigorate your working week. Locations such as Spaces offer a professional, distraction-free environment with high quality WiFi (not to mention proper coffee). And, when you leave at the end of the day, you’ll really feel as if you’ve finished work.

2. Assess your workload, time-block tasks

It’s difficult to establish and defend work-life boundaries if you spend your professional life fire-fighting, so taking control of your to-do list is vital.

Reviewing what needs to be done can feel like time-wasting, but planning and procrastination are two very different things. Once you’ve identified which tasks are urgent and important – and which can wait a while – you’ll be able to consider how long each will take.

Time-blocking tasks will allow you to manage your calendar more effectively, giving colleagues a clearer sense of how long work will take and incentivising you to avoid unnecessary meetings that might slow your progress towards deadlines.

Ultimately, being realistic about what you have to do, and how long you need to do it, reduces the likelihood that your working day will extend beyond the limit you’ve set.

3. Agree on expectations

With hybrid working models set to become standard in the wake of Covid-19, most firms will also see more employees working asynchronously. This means that members of a team might not work exactly the same hours, even if they’re in the same country.

While this has its advantages, it can also cause frustration. If you’re a manager, establishing core times during which people are expected to overlap their hours makes sense.

This way, your whole team will know they can contact one another during set periods by IM, video call or email, and anticipate a timely response.

Outside of such hours, though, there’s no reason why as an employee you can’t time-block checking and responding to emails or other communications. It’s a trick worth trying if work-life balance is a struggle, or if you’re often distracted by the pinging of your inbox.

4. Use tech to your advantage

Smart use of tech can support work-life boundaries by ensuring that communication between colleagues is meaningful. Project management systems such as Trello and Asana, for instance, allow teams to share information so that progress updates – which might otherwise require a 30-minute meeting – are available at a glance.

Meanwhile, using your email’s out-of-office function during time-blocked periods, and setting your Slack or Teams Chat status to ‘busy’, sends a signal to colleagues that you’re engaged in focused work.

A step as simple as dropping a ‘see you tomorrow’ note in the relevant IM channel can be surprisingly effective, too: it’s a personable, polite way of making your work-life boundary clear.

There’s also a lot to be said for going old-school when the working day is done by detoxing from devices that will tempt you to check work messages, or at the very least switching off email and other notifications.

5. Show up for yourself

If you can use time-blocking to ensure work tasks are completed on time, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t also start to carve out specific windows for personal pursuits.

Putting time aside for a daily walk, weekly training session or quality time with your partner is as valid as deciding you’ll check and respond to work emails each day between 10am and 12 noon. While it’s important to ensure you show up for your colleagues and managers, don’t forget it’s crucial to show up for yourself, too. For his book, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss interviewed hundreds of ultra-successful people, from movie stars to entrepreneurs and chess prodigies. He found that one thing they had in common was commitment to their own daily rituals, which often involved morning exercise.

Finally, for all your efforts to establish more effective work-life boundaries, it’s essential that you occasionally allow them to flex. Life is messy, and the quest for balance between ‘home time’ and ‘work time’ could, in itself, become a source of stress if you’re not careful.

Instead of seeking perfection, strive for a routine that suits you – and prepare for a little fluidity. Periods of personal and professional pressure arise for all of us from time to time. If you’re prepared to bend when necessary, you’re far less likely to break.

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