How to keep work from ruining your life

In our ever-connected world, the good thing is you can work from anywhere. The bad thing is you can work from anywhere.

That constant accessibility can make it feel like there are no boundaries between personal and work life. And in some professions, such as working in investment banking, at a start-up or a job that requires a lot of travel, work hours easily extend beyond 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.

The good news is you can take back your life. Be proactive on priorities, communicate with bosses and clients, set schedules – these can all help, as does recognizing signs of bad-fitting jobs.

Figure out priorities

“Because we are so connected to work, that it’s possible to work 24 hours a day 365 days a year, we’re losing a key connection in our life and that is the connection to ourselves…. We’ll never be able to set boundaries if we don’t have that foundational awareness of what we want,” said Alison Miller, partner at career-coaching firm Tiara International.

Start by making time to consciously unwind, she said, which might be difficult at first. When people are relaxed, it’s easier to remember what matters outside of work. That may give them the backbone to start forming these boundaries.

Marti​ Konstant​, a career growth analyst and founder of The Agile Careerist Project, said many people don’t even try to set boundaries.

“Testing the waters is very important… We don’t have the same flexibility (as other coworkers) because we don’t negotiate the same,” she said.

Feeling too insecure at work to set boundaries? Miller said that may be a sign of disconnection.

“Our minds are creating a mental prison in which we live. We have a story that we have to do all these things or we’ll get fired,” she said. “We’ve never examined, is that true?”

Sometimes when jobs change, it comes with a heavier or different workload, and it’s up to individuals to talk with supervisors on how to avoid burnout, Konstant said.

Karl Setzer, a commodity trading adviser and risk management team leader at MaxYield Grain, a grain cooperative, said when electronic trading started, markets became open almost 24 hours. He found himself working day and night trying to keep customer orders straight. He, and his firm, realized that couldn’t continue.

To start, the firm established specific hours for client contact, including a night answering system, and flexibility to come into the office or not. Setzer said he and his wife, who also works in the same industry at another firm, also set boundaries at home – such as not checking email at night.

“We might get on our mobile devices and check social media, and we might look quickly to see how the markets opened (at 7 p.m. local time), but if it’s not an emergency, I tend to not check too much after hours,” Setzer said.

Know when and where to set boundaries

Jody Michael, chief executive officer of Jody Michael Associates, a career-coaching company, said some professions require employees to be present at certain times.

“The marketplace is a good example. It’s open certain hours and you be responsible and reactive in the moment and you’re not going to change that,” she said.

Even with those schedules, employees can find boundaries, she said. Corporate culture will dictate how companies treat workers no matter the profession.

Michael said the relationship many bosses have with employees can be divided into two camps: “distrust until” and “distrust still.”

The “distrust until” boss wants the employee to prove he or she can be trusted. To earn that trust, employees should seek out conversations with their direct supervisor to understand how the supervisor will measure performance.

Employees with the “distrust still” boss will never let you earn their trust.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, they’re not going to trust you because they have strong beliefs that this doesn’t work,” she said.

In that case, it’s time to look for a new job, Michael said.

Steve Vasilion, founder of Vasilion Architects, said he promotes his flexibility with his clients, but he also has rules with overdemanding clients.

“In some respects, clients can be more demanding (than supervisors). They expect you to be at their beck and call. Part of what I promote is I am accessible and available and work will be done on time. There’s a balance that has to be struck there. With any long-term client, we’ve developed a rhythm that works for us. Any client that is not flexible in that way or is overly demanding is maybe someone who shouldn’t be a repeat client down the road,” he said.

For employees who need extra flexibility because of special situations outside work, get a plan in writing, if only to protect yourself.

Sue Carpenter (her name has been changed to protect her identity), thought she had a flexible job since the small marketing firm she worked at allowed her to occasionally leave early for acting auditions. But when she was diagnosed with cancer, the laid-back atmosphere changed.

“I pretty much kept the office informed whenever I had new information, because I recognized the impact it was going to have. Once I’d had the ‘what to expect’ conversation with my oncology team, I asked for a meeting with my boss to relay that info and ask what kind of contingency plan he wanted to create…. He declined to plan anything, and told me he wasn’t going to penalize me for being sick and wouldn’t even keep track of my sick leave,” Carpenter said.

Nothing was put in writing regarding new work schedules or expectations for her job. However, three months after starting chemotherapy, she said her boss fired her over a weekend for missing too much work.

“I never saw it coming, and since it was over a weekend, I was unable to get back in the office to print out emails or gather other documents for lawsuits,” Carpenter said.

Put the phone down. Now.

Konstant said because smartphones are such a big part of our lives, people are always “on,” even at a personal level. But there’s a difference between being always on and always available.

“It’s your choice to take the call when out,” she said.

Drew Marshall, founder of Primed Consulting, concurred. He has global clients, so there’s a lure to be constantly available. Many people are their own worst enemies when it comes to technology, he said.

“The phone habit has crept in like an information Trojan horse. People often find themselves working after hours or on email because it’s there. They have the device in their hands and they can do it,” he said.

When it comes to phone usage, it’s important to set rules, said Marshall and Andrew Haller, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of AirDev, a software design firm start-up.

“Establish explicit rules, routines, and rituals… (There are) no exceptions! Breaking your rule once sets an example for yourself — and others — that it isn’t that important,” Haller said.

Telling others that you have a goal to set these boundaries can help to break the phone habit, too, they said. Enlist friends and family to remind you to stop doing work on the phone can help.

Marshall communicates clearly to clients his schedule, and he’s created rules for himself to keep technology from running his life. He doesn’t check it when exercising or eating, and when he’s out, depending on what’s going on, he’ll put the phone on airplane mode.

“No one I know who is a CEO of a business needs to be available 24/7. If something requires a response, someone will find a way to get in touch. But being available just in case needs to get in touch is a fool’s errand; you will just make yourself insane,” he said.