Try these small (but effective!) tactics to help you stay off email, manage your colleagues, and reclaim your weekends.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that you need to adopt better work-life boundaries.
Perhaps you feel like your brain is constantly on fire with thoughts about work and you’re beginning to suspect there’s a better way to live. Maybe you — and I’m spitballing here — just received yet another Sunday morning “Hey, just sent you an email” text from a coworker about a deeply not urgent email and you’d love to figure out how to tell them, “Hey, cut that shit out,” in a professional way. Perhaps you — again, spitballing — worked 60 hours a week for the past year and still aren’t getting a raise, or you recently watched the Layoff Angel of Death sweep through your company and realized that being available at all hours of the day didn’t save anyone’s job.
There are physical and emotional effects when you work this much. One 2017 study in Portugal concluded that workers who put in more than 48 hours per week had poorer-quality sleep and increased symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to their counterparts who worked less. A UK study of data from hundreds of thousands of workers found that those who put in more than 55 hours per week had a higher risk of stroke — and had a significantly elevated risk of heart attack if they were also of a lower socioeconomic status.
If you’re ready to reclaim your weekends and weeknights but aren’t exactly great at setting or enforcing boundaries in your work, you’re not alone. It’s hard, especially if you’ve worked in toxic environments or if you’ve had to be obsessive about work (or school) to get to this point in your career. And, of course, we’re all operating in a deeply broken system where many Americans are working nonstop as a matter of survival; systemic and policy changes must address that, not individuals. But if you have a bit more privilege and flexibility with your work and suspect you could do more to protect your time and energy, read on for some tips.
Recognize the signs of burnout
“If we don’t stop and take care of ourselves, we risk burnout,” says California-based therapist Ryan Howes, who specializes in helping people feel empowered and gain independence in their lives. “Burnout has been recognized as an official disorder by the World Health Organization. It affects your ability to work [and] your emotions about work.” But it’s easy to lose sight of what a healthy and normal workload looks like, particularly if you’ve been grinding for a while. Here are signs from Howes that you may be burned out or need better work-life boundaries:
- You dread going to work in the morning.
- You show up late or find reasons to leave early.
- You feel bored or don’t want to engage with the work when you’re there.
- You’re complaining about work a lot (even though you’re not typically a complainer).
- The first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do before you fall asleep at night is check your work email.
- You plan all your vacations around work (e.g., not traveling too far from work in case they suddenly need you).
- You’re having frequent work dreams and nightmares.
(You could also use my personal metric: If you’re regularly jealous of your dog because it gets to stay home and do nothing all day, that’s a bad sign.)
Once you recognize that something needs to change, start with your mindset. It’s not enough to believe in logging off on weekends in theory.
“The biggest thing is a mental reframing. You’ve got to really believe that it’s okay to disengage from work and that you won’t look like a slacker for doing so,” says Alison Green, author of Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work (and the excellent work advice blog Ask a Manager).
A lot of people struggle to set boundaries or say no at work because they want to be liked, Howes says, but that strategy might not be helpful in the long run. “There’s a difference between being liked and being respected,” he says. “Sometimes people like you because they can walk all over you. Saying no teaches people to respect you and respect your time … to think, ‘Let me only ask for this if I really need it.’”
He suggests taking an honest look at your motivation for doing so much extra work. “Is it coming from a place of excitement?” he says. “Or is it coming from a place of anxiety and fear?”
Don’t let your work friends become your only friends
It’s worth considering whether your relationships with your coworkers are playing a role in how much you’re working (or just thinking about work). “I always say be friendly with people but have other friends,” Howes says. After all, if your only friends are your work friends, it’ll be much harder to avoid work on evenings, weekends, or vacations.
And if your coworkers do happen to be your close friends, it’s not a bad idea to set some boundaries around shop talk. You are absolutely allowed to say, “Hey, can we put a moratorium on work convos [for the rest of the day/in the evenings/at this birthday party]? I’m finding that talking about it so much is stressing me out and making it harder to relax and recharge.” Your coworker pals may even appreciate this.
Howes also suggests not engaging in gossip or getting drawn into office drama, which increases the time you spend talking and thinking about work and is just toxic. Complaining might feel good in the moment, but it’s incredibly draining and unproductive (particularly if you’re venting on the side via IMs all day), and it brings everyone else down too.
Don’t be a hero. Speak up when your workload is too much.
Setting boundaries at work doesn’t have to be a huge to-do. “Sometimes all you have to do is stop saying yes to everything,” Green says. In fact, she says, your boss might be expecting you to tell them when you’re stretched too thin.
Green says you should think about what you can reasonably get done in a week and then say something to your manager like, “I can’t have this by Tuesday, but I could get it to you by Friday,” or, “I can do X, but it will mean delaying Y and Z. Should we talk about how to prioritize those?”
“In other cases, you do need to have an explicit conversation with your boss where you say something like, ‘I’m regularly working 60-hour weeks, and that’s not sustainable. I want to talk to you about how to best structure my time and make sure we’re on the same page about what to prioritize,’” she says. And Howes recommends heading into these conversations with a few potential solutions in mind.
Howes adds that phrasing like, “I’ve been doing a lot, but I don’t think I’ve been doing it well,” can be particularly effective. “If you can say, ‘I don’t think I’m doing my best-quality work,’ that’s a good selling point,” he says.
It’s not just managers: We’ve all had coworkers who work nonstop and expect us to do the same. But you don’t actually have to engage! If you need to set a boundary with a pushy colleague, try one of these scripts from Green:
“I’ve got to stay focused on X this week — sorry I can’t help!”
“I’m juggling a lot of projects right now, so typically I’ll need three days’ turnaround time on something like this. If it’s ever an emergency, let me know and I’ll see what I can do, but I’ve got to balance it against requests that came in earlier.”
“I’m [out sick/on vacation/taking PTO] today, but I’ll look at this when I’m back in the office.”
And if you tend to have a hard time saying no, Howes recommends just not responding immediately. “Try to work on that impulse to say yes to everything,” he says. “Take a second and say, ‘Let me get back to you,’ or, ‘Let me think about that.’”
Log off. (No, really.)
If you know that logging off would help but you can’t seem to kick the habit, here are a few ways to start:
- Use separate apps for work email and personal email (such as the native Mail app for one and the Gmail app for the other), so you don’t inadvertently see work emails on weekends when you’re, say, reading your favorite newsletter.
- Move your email app and Slack off your home screen — and perhaps into a harder-to-access folder — so you don’t open them out of habit. (It’s kind of astonishing how much of a difference this makes.)
- If you can’t resist working in your off-hours, consider waiting to send non-urgent emails until working hours when your coworkers are back online too. Every message you send creates more work — for the recipient, for you when they reply, etc. — and contributes to a workplace culture where everyone is always on. By waiting to hit send (or scheduling your emails), you do everyone a favor.
And if you’re planning to reset your work-life balance after months or even years of being hyper-available, Green says it can help to be explicit about the change so your colleagues can adjust their expectations. She suggests saying something like, “I know historically I’ve been on email most of the night, but I’m going to be more disciplined about disconnecting in the evenings from now on. I’ll still get back to you by the next day in most cases, but it might take a little longer than it traditionally has.”
If your work-life balance issues are ongoing, consider leaving
If the relentless nature of your industry is giving you daily panic attacks or if you’re putting in miserable 80-hour weeks and are still struggling to complete all your work, it might be a sign that this isn’t the job or the company or the career for you. And that’s fine!
“I don’t think people should be afraid to say, ‘I’m having a hard time keeping up,’” Howes says. He recommends thinking about what you want your life to look like in a year or five years. How would you feel if nothing about your current workload or work-life balance had changed? Howes says it’s not unusual or shameful to change jobs or career paths — he had a client in his 50s who did so recently because, the man said, “I’ve been fulfilling the dreams of the 15-year-old version of me.”
If you do start job hunting, Green says you can ask about work-life balance during the interview process. “Say, ‘Can you tell me what hours the person in this role typically works?’” she says. “Don’t just ask the hiring manager. You’ll sometimes get a more realistic answer from peers of the role or others in the company.”
When it’s all too much, do this to feel human again
Setting boundaries isn’t just about saying no; it’s also about saying yes. When your brain is on fire after a long day of work, remember to say yes to the activities that contribute to your overall well-being. Instead of flopping down and scrolling on your phone endlessly after a long day, maybe eat something vaguely nourishing, move your body, put clean sheets on your bed, make a cup of tea, take a bath, do a puzzle — anything that helps ground you and makes you feel a little bit more human.
And even when you’re really overwhelmed at work, do your best not to isolate yourself. “Reach out to your people: your family, your friends,” Howes says. “Let them know you’re struggling.” He also suggests seeking support online from other people who work in your industry. These colleagues can give you a sense of whether your workload or your boss’s demands are normal, offer coping tips, and help you figure out whether this is all really worth it for you.
This article was originally posted at Vox.com