Working all the time isn’t productive, so why do so many of us check email late at night or early in the morning, or crack open our laptops after dinner to take care of just one more bit of business before turning in? In part, it’s because we can. Needless to say, before the advent of email, internet, and mobile computing, workers either stayed late at the office or they went home and concentrated on their personal lives. Technology is both a curse and a blessing for work-life balance, and tipping the scales toward the “blessing” end requires both organizational skills and a healthy amount of self-control.
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But first things first: If your company’s corporate culture encourages – or even insists on – long hours and after-work check-ins, you might not be able to change it. This is especially true if your industry tends to reward workers who never leave the office. Folks in finance, for example, often get paid huge salaries with the expectation that they’ll work superhuman hours. If you’re in one of those industries, and the schedule is getting you down, the answer might be a career change.
If, on the other hand, your employer is more focused on results than the glory of seeing a lot of people online at all hours of the day and night, you might have a chance to make a change for yourself and your colleagues.
1. Get the boss on your side.
Your best ally is your boss, and an increasing body of research that shows that working longer hours doesn’t lead to more productivity – in fact, just the opposite.
One study from Stanford found that productivity falls off after 50 hours of work, and that beyond 55 hours, workers are essentially just occupying space. In other words, go ahead and work 70 hours a week, but you’re not doing anything with the last 15 but impressing the boss.
And speaking of impressing the boss, when you marshal your arguments, focus on the potential productivity gains, not how much happier you’d be if you didn’t have to check in at all hours. Be prepared to offer backup plans, like setting up a rotating schedule of team members checking email for emergencies. Best-case scenario, you can all stop working at 5 or 6 p.m., but if that’s not possible, losing one night a week is better than losing five (plus the weekend).
2. Recognize your own bad habits – and practice changing them.
While it’s true that companies often encourage poor work-life balance, workers themselves are sometimes their own worst enemies when it comes to leaving work at the office. It’s just too easy to check email on your phone once you’re home or waste time at the office by looking at your social media feeds instead of attending to work … which you’ll then wind up doing later on, when you should be resting.
Start by making sure your work hours are devoted to work. Keep a time diary for a few days and write down what you do all day. Be honest: five minutes here or there on Facebook might not seem like much, but check once an hour and you’ve lost 40 minutes of work time during an eight-hour day. Find a few time-sucks like these and you’ll steal back enough time to catch up on your Netflix in the evenings instead of frantically processing TPS reports.
On the “life” side of work-life balance, be ruthless about putting away your mobile devices when it’s time to unplug. Ariana Huffington suggests picking a time of night to turn off your smartphones and tablets and “gently escort them out of the bedroom.”
Exert some willpower, and your only problem will be trying to figure out where to buy an alarm clock in the 21st century.
3. Change your after-work schedule.
At Slate, political campaign worker Francesca Christie tells L.V. Anderson that she kept to a New Year’s resolution to ignore work after-hours by reading more and learning a second language. Anderson also recommends taking a yoga class or even just making plans with friends. Having something to do in the evenings makes it harder to relapse into scanning your work email.
4. Enlist the help of loved ones.
If worse comes to worst, emotional blackmail generally works:
“Last year, my colleague Mark Joseph Stern resolved not to do any work after 9 p.m.—and he stuck to it the whole year, with some backhanded help from his significant other,” Anderson writes. “‘My boyfriend enforced this resolution by accusing me of not loving him whenever I opened my laptop after 9,’ Stern told me. ‘Eventually I developed a Pavlovian aversion to after-hours work.'”
5. Don’t beat yourself up.
If you find it hard to envision a world in which you’d never check in after hours, that’s probably because you’re a pretty realistic person. Odds are, you’ll still occasionally do some work during non-work time; just know that if you do, you haven’t failed.
The goal of changing your after-work habits is to get back some of your time, and become more productive and hopefully happier. Look at it this way: in order to be able to burn the midnight oil now and then, you need to have some left to burn. All you’re trying to do with your new and improved approach is to give yourself a chance to rest and restore your energy, while also making time for that life you work so hard to afford.
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