How to set clear boundaries between work and personal life?
If you believe that there are no clear boundaries between your work and personal responsibilities, and you often feel that you are constantly running and juggling your tasks, which negatively affects the quality of your life, it is time to stop and think about how to solve this problem. Although sometimes it may seem that the pace of life keeps on accelerating, we have to repeat to ourselves again and again that there are only 24 hours a day during which it is necessary for us to fulfil our commitments, rest, eat and exercise to ensure a good quality of life.
Here are some tips on how to spend your time in a quality way so that all areas of your life are balanced.
- Plan your time
Each week, take the time to plan your next week. Every single day of that week. Your weekly plan needs to be realistic and achievable, by calculating the exact time you will spend on each activity. The plan needs to cover all areas of your life and daily activities. Your time formula (when living a quality and balanced life) should look like this:
24 hours – x (sleep hours) – x (commuting to/from work and other activities) – x (time for personal commitments) – x (exercising, physical activities) – x (time for self-care) = x (time spent on work).
Time for personal commitments includes all the things that are important and necessary to you. Each person puts different things under the said category, for example, time spent with the family, volunteering, community activities, hobbies, etc.
Time spent on self-care should include eating, personal hygiene, dressing yourself, and other personal preparation.
Once you can clearly see what your day looks like – divided according to certain activities with a clear amount of time dedicated to each of them, you can move on to an overall weekly plan. Some days may look the same, while others may differ greatly due to the variety of personal commitments. Once it becomes clear what your week looks like and how many hours you actually have for your professional activities, move on to planning your working hours. Try to clearly arrange your tasks and set the amount of time you need to complete each task or activity. It is important to calculate correctly not only the actual time it takes to performance a certain activity, but also the indirect time related to that activity. For example, if you are planning a meeting, it is not enough to simply estimate its duration – you need to add all the time you will spend preparing for it, going to it and coming back from it, as well as resolving the issues addressed during the meeting.
- Save time wherever you can
A clear weekly plan will likely enable you to see that you need more time for some of the things you wish to include, however it is physically impossible. There is also a risk that your plan will be very ambitious, without the opportunity to simply have free time for enjoyable activities such as surfing the internet or social networks, chatting with colleagues or people dear to you, etc. In other words, you may be tempted to plan the perfect week, which will be extremely difficult to follow through, because life is so much more colourful and you never know what might distract you from your plan. Therefore, be self-critical and save time wherever you can.
You may be able to postpone some projects or agreements, but given the scale of your more urgent or ongoing work, it is naïve to expect things to go exactly according to your set plan and that you won’t need extra time. Your colleagues may be able to help you with some tasks, you just need to ask them or redistribute the tasks with the help of your immediate superior. Perhaps some of your meetings are less important but time consuming, and you can cancel them by discussing the relevant issues over the phone. Perhaps you can remove certain tasks from your plan that don’t generate any added value but take a very long time to complete. Try to take a critical look at your plan and adjust it as necessary to create more free time. Also, try to adequately measure your time and take on new commitments or tasks only when you see that you actually have time for them in your weekly plan.
- Keep track of your plan and the actual time of its execution
Take note of how much time it actually takes to perform your planned activities and tasks. For example, you may have planned to take an hour to respond to emails, but it turned out that you need at least two hours when actually performing this task. If there is no way to avoid investing some extra time in a task, you need to adjust your plan to meet your actual time requirements (in other words, reschedule your time). Time management experts recommend using the 80/20 rule, which provides that 20 percent of effort yields 80 percent of results, and the remaining 80 percent of effort yields only 20 percent of results (also called the Pareto principle).
You will help yourself if you accept the truth that you cannot do everything that is expected of you to make everyone around you happy. For example, if you clearly understand that attending a meeting where your participation is not necessary but others would like you to participate would unnecessarily waste too much time. In this case, the right choice would be to apologize to your colleagues for not attending the meeting, and use the saved time on tasks that depend on you directly. You may also notice that you have planned some activities to take a longer time than is actually needed. For example, it may be enough to spend half an hour in a meeting instead of an hour as you initially thought, and in that case, by leaving earlier, you can invest the time saved in another task that will generate more value for you. Even if some of your decisions may not appeal to others, short-term discomfort and setting clear boundaries can bring more benefits in the long run.
- Seek help
If you have tried applying the first three tips but are still unable to do everything that you have planned for yourself – do not be afraid to ask for help. Before doing so, carefully review your schedule once again and identify the objective reasons why some tasks were not completed. It may not be a matter of your personal planning skills, perhaps you simply have too many work commitments or too many tasks assigned to you. Here are a few things to look for before talking to your immediate superior or colleagues who are trying to give you new tasks:
Gather the facts. Make a clear list of all the tasks and the time required to complete them (if you followed the previous tips, you already know this information).
Visualize your daily, weekly, or longer plan. You can simply print a calendar or visualize the plan in another format. In this case, the form in which you provide the information is less important than its content. Your goal is to clearly show that you do not have enough time to carry out the tasks that you are expected to perform.
Present your information. In this case, the more important thing is not to “prove your truth”, but to show the actual situation and ask for help in solving your problem, prioritizing your tasks, delegating them to other team members, simplifying them, etc.
- Review your plans periodically
Take some time to carefully review your plans. It is unlikely that once a perfect plan is put together, it will always fit. You will find that sometimes weekly reviews are enough, but there are times when you need to do your reviews on a daily basis as well. You will eventually get used to estimating the time it takes to perform certain tasks quite accurately, which will allow you to manage and plan your time more effectively.
Do not worry if there are moments throughout the process when you feel bad about not being able to plan everything smoothly. Be patient to yourself and realistic regarding your actual limits. Along the way, you will probably need to learn to say no more often when newly assigned tasks or activities clearly do not fit into your time budget.
HBR Guide to Work-Life Balance, 2019