Let’s indulge ourselves in some idealism, shall we? Imagine your perfect workday — a day where nothing goes wrong, all the stoplights on your commute turn green, and no one drops a pile of extra work on top of you. Now, try turning it into a schedule. Hour by hour, what are you working on? Fill in your day, all the way to the end of work, and then keep going. What would you like to do after work? Drinks with your pals? A movie with the kids? Take note of how much time you’re spending on work tasks vs. personal endeavors. Do you like the balance you’ve struck? If not, go back and reorganize the schedule, even if you need to leave something out just for now. We’re not going to show this to your boss — this exercise is purely imaginative.
2. Then get real. Really real. Now that you’ve mapped out your dream workday, it’s time to burst your own bubble and get real about your schedule. Things do go wrong, every dang traffic light catches you on red, and, lo and behold, someone forgot to fill out that order form last week, so now you’ve got a ton of extra stuff to deal with. Hello, Monday.
We’re going to make the opposite of the schedule you made in step one. This one is going to be coldly accurate. Keep a rough diary of everything you do for a whole week. OK, not everything you do. Don’t write down every breath you take. But be honest with yourself. How much time were you driving, or checking emails, or doing work tasks? Keep it up after work. How much time did you really spend on your hobbies? Were you so beat from the day that you just collapsed on the couch when you got home?
At the end of the week, put your dream schedule and your painfully real schedule side by side. Note the differences — there will probably be a lot of them. You won’t be able to do much about some or even most of them. Traffic lights turn red. Order forms get forgotten. But could you save some of those emails for the next day? Talk to your manager about the work overflow bleeding into your family dinner? Identify your pain points, then see which ones you can heal.
3. Make friends with your alarm.
Are you one of those workaholics who looks down at their watch and realizes, whoa, lunch was supposed to be an hour ago? If your workday doesn’t have enough structure built in, it’s tough to keep track of the hours. Set yourself reminders or alarms on your phone so that your breaks don’t pass you by. And if you find yourself drooling whenever your phone goes off, blame Pavlov, not us!
We can’t all decide to leave work behind for the day. Truckers can’t just teleport home when they’re worn out, and patients’ needs don’t conform to the schedules of even the most fastidious nurses. But if you can, unplug at the end of the day. Learn to meditate, try that new yoga pose that might be just a little too hard, take a walk around your neighborhood, or, if you’re traveling, look up a park to explore nearby.
Folks who work from home have an especially hard time disconnecting from work — after all, their office is literally inside their home. So set your work accounts to “offline.” You could even remove your email app from your phone. Restrict work tasks to work hours. For most of us who aren’t first responders, there are no real work emergencies. You can get to it in the morning.
No to consulting on your coworker’s new project. No to organizing the entire extended family’s vacation all on your own. No to joining that board, that club, that neighborhood committee about whatever. No, no, no.
No is one of the most beautiful words in the English language, but it gets a bad rap. The goal here isn’t to be a jerk, but you need to protect the precious little time you carved out in step two. Politely decline requests you just can’t devote enough hours to. It can be difficult, but most of the time, people will understand — they’ve got responsibilities to juggle, too. And it’s better to be honest about how much you can give than to overwhelm yourself and come up short. Just. Say. No.