While many of us come to success in unconventional ways, we all deal with the constant and dynamic struggle to find that perfect balance between our work lives and our home lives. The fact is, it’s impossible to achieve anything resembling work-life balance if you don’t set boundaries. Here are a few tips to help you find the middle ground and be successful both at work and at home.
How to set work-life boundaries
Work-life balance was challenging enough before we reached the current era of hybrid work schedules and fully virtual setups. Now it’s even harder. Although remote work can be an opportunity to place boundaries and physical distance between an individual and the traditional office environment, a 2021 survey from Owl Labs showed that 55 percent of respondents worked longer hours at home than they did in the office. Now more than ever, it’s up to the individual to enforce the necessary boundaries to achieve a healthy work-life balance. These seven strategies will help.
1. Let go of the work-life balance myth.
You’ve probably heard that the perfect work-life balance is a myth. This idea that you can be 100% present at work and 100% present at home – regardless of what’s happening in either place – is nearly impossible to achieve. Studies have found that striving for it can actually be detrimental to mental health and happiness. After all, we only have so much attention and awareness to give, right?
That doesn’t mean that finding what the Buddhists call “the middle way,” or a place of balance between two opposites, isn’t worth working toward. Seeking a balance between your work and your home life is healthy and can significantly improve both your professional success and your private life. You just need to have realistic expectations.
The first step in work-life integration is to know yourself and your strengths. Never try to be someone you’re not, because that will cause both mental and physical strife. Come to terms with where you may lack, and ask for help from loved ones, trusted mentors and friends.
The next, and probably the hardest, step is to reframe the idea of work-life balance. Cognitive role transitions, or the way your thoughts switch from work to home life, are natural and happen all the time. But when you try to put hard boundaries on them and stop certain thoughts from happening, you can cause more harm than good.
Did you know? Happy employees who enjoy work-life balance lead to increased success for companies. Businesses can hire a chief happiness officer to lead the way.
2. Get to the heart of what matters most.
Determine what the ideal work-life integration looks like for you. Does going to a yoga class once a day or making it to your daughter’s swim meet each week make you feel fulfilled? Is a spin class once a week your path to being a saner person? Identify your core needs, make the decision to incorporate them into your schedule, and don’t look back.
The things that help keep you going every week and make you feel balanced and whole will sustain you throughout your life and career. Once you know what matters most, you can work on setting boundaries around those activities so that whether you’re at work or home, you can be more fully present for those around you.
Whatever matters most to you, make a list and figure out which items are negotiable and which aren’t. When you have a more complete picture of what you’re willing to flex on, you can work toward better work-life integration.
3. Be connected, but set limits.
Let’s face it – we’re all connected all the time, thanks to electronic leashes like our smartphones and work computers. In fact, a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021 found that more than 38 percent of workers did some or all of their work at home or during off hours. While it can be aggravating to have to answer emails at your son’s lacrosse game, it can give you an advantage too, and not in the way you might think. The trick is to be connected, but somewhat unpredictable.
It seems counterintuitive, but if you change up the timing of your responses (and work), you keep your boss and your co-workers from expecting responses at set intervals on specific days. Vary your response time – sometimes answering back immediately and sometimes waiting a few hours or a day to respond to an email. It keeps your contacts on their toes and lets them know you’re still responsive, but that they can’t have a set expectation of when you’ll get back to them.
Responding this way will allow you to take a break from work emails without worrying that something needs your immediate attention. Those wanting an answer will just have to wait until you’re ready to respond.
Tip: Create an “I’ll get to that later” document. If an idea pops into your head during a break or outside of working hours, put it into this document and close it out with a plan to address it at a more convenient time.
4. Guard your downtime.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of being always connected and always on, but research has shown that the best way to be successful both in your work and your home life is to find time to rest, restore and unplug. Downtime helps the brain integrate what it’s learned or accomplished, and it inspires creativity. It’s also vital to nurturing close relationships and building strong bonds with people outside of work.
It’s crucial to schedule downtime and ensure that nothing infringes on it. A hard stop from work gives your brain and body time to come back down from stressful events and situations, and you become better equipped to deal with life outside of the office. By protecting your downtime, you can become happier and find that elusive middle path between work and home life.
It also pays to do mini digital detoxes when you can. Whether that means putting your phone down for the evening or going a whole weekend without looking at your work email, unplugging from devices allows our brains to rest and be more present with the world around us.
5. Don’t stress about work-life balance.
Try to take the pressure off of striving for the ideal work-life balance. Adding another thing to worry about on top of an overloaded to-do list isn’t going to help you be a better parent or a better employee. Realize that the perfect work-life balance doesn’t exist. Instead, strive for a work-life integration that suits your needs both as an employee and as a human being.
6. Set up a designated work space if working from home.
Healthy boundaries aren’t only established with bosses and co-workers; they’re also something you need to establish with yourself.
If you work from home, designate a quiet area of your living space just for working. There will likely still be times when you’re seated at your kitchen table with a laptop, but a dedicated space lets your mind shift in and out of “work mode” when necessary. If you don’t have a spare room to work out of, try sectioning off part of your bedroom or living room and use headphones when necessary.
Tip: To better succeed in a remote position, consider increasing your technical knowledge (such as your skill with tools and software) through mentorships or online learning programs.
7. Follow a set schedule.
Give yourself a schedule and stick to it. If you work from home, try to start at the same time every day rather than sleeping in (or starting work too early). This will get your body used to early-morning productivity. [Read related article: Are Employees More Productive Working From Home?]
Also, remember to take your lunch break. In the absence of a lunchroom, it’s easy to work through your break. To avoid this, set a firm lunchtime for yourself and block it out on your calendar so you don’t schedule meetings during your break. While flexibility can be a good thing, remember that your time is just as important as anyone else’s. Finally, one of the best things you can do to maintain work-life balance and structure is to turn off your computer when you’re finished working, giving some finality to the end of the workday.
Classic work-life balance mistakes to avoid
Now that we’ve gone over what you should do for work-life balance, let’s identify what you shouldn’t do. Here are some common mistakes to avoid while practicing boundaries in the workplace.
Not setting or communicating your boundaries
The most common mistake one can make when establishing boundaries is not communicating them or being clear enough with those around you. Perhaps someone you’re working with forgot you work in the Eastern time zone while they live in Central Time. In this case, politely let the other person know you may be trying to log off for the day while assignments continue to roll in. Whether you’re an entrepreneur prioritizing tasks or a worker coordinating with your bosses and colleagues, you should not only establish your boundaries but also reinforce them as necessary.
Hyper-focusing on work-life balance
Do you time your lunch breaks down to the millisecond or leave meetings right at the 30-minute mark no matter what? If so, you may be a bit too rigid and hyperfocused in the pursuit of maintaining the “perfect” work-life balance. An optimal work-life integration is one that helps you feel fulfilled in both the personal and professional areas of your life. Pay attention to how you feel at the end of the workday, and consider how much energy you’re able to give to your personal pursuits. This is a good (nonscientific) measurement of how well you’re maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Not recognizing negative patterns
Remote teams are often more engaged than office workers. While this is largely seen as a positive attribute, knowing when to unplug from a project can be just as important as staying plugged in. When work is constantly at your fingertips on your phone, tablet and laptop, getting in just one more meeting or email can be too easy. That leads to negative patterns. For example, you might impulsively check emails or chat up a co-worker about the same issues you just had a meeting about. You may feel the need to over-communicate in a work-from-home setting, but don’t let the anxiety of perfection overshadow the way you may actually be making things harder for yourself and others.
Having an all-or-nothing mindset
An all-or-nothing mindset can keep you from opportunities and, ultimately, professional success. While maintaining a set schedule and defined boundaries is critical, you should also listen to your intuition. If an amazing project or career opportunity comes along and you need to adjust your schedule, do it. Trust your gut about making adjustments on a case-by-case basis, and weigh cost versus reward. There will be times when you might have to (sparingly) work late or take a shorter break than usual. Breaking a rule you set for yourself is up to your own discretion – just remember that balance is in the eye (and schedule) of the beholder.
Angela Koch contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.