Setting Appropriate Work Boundaries: Start with your Smart Phone
According to a recent Nielsen report, smartphones now outnumber their “dumber” counterparts (i.e. basic cell phones) in the United States. That means that more Americans than ever before are enjoying mobile Facebook, posting pictures with Instagram, and getting triple-point scores on Words with Friends. But it also suggests that more and more professionals remain connected to their work emails even in their supposed off-hours. And many of these workers suspect that the benefits of increased connectivity are undermined by their increased attachment to work.
The temptation to check for messages can be an overwhelming distraction during family meals, children’s soccer games, and quality time with one’s spouse. The importance of work-life balance is espoused in hundreds (if not thousands) of books and magazine articles, many outlining specific steps you can take toward professional-personal equilibrium. But the best answer to dealing with your smartphone is surprising simple:
“Just turn it off,” says Dan Markovitz, “You don’t think you can turn it off, you actually can.”
Markovitz is president of TimeBack Management, a productivity consulting firm. He notes that the problems associated with smartphones and 24-hour employee access are common refrains. But no matter where you are in the corporate hierarchy, he stresses the need to set boundaries and determine priorities.
“It’s important to recognize that input [in the form of emails and other requests for your time] is always going to be there,” Markovitz told me “It’s your own choice as to when you want to say goodbye. Figure out what’s important to you personally, what’s important to you professionally. Figure out when you want to be with your family, pets, and when you want to be answering email.”
Turn off, tune in, check out.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently admitted to leaving work every day at 5:30—a revelation only slightly less surprising than if she had revealed she was born on Krypton. (She’s not, as far as we know.) Many applauded her commitment to family and personal life, and urged others to follow suit. Others noted that Sandberg likely has resources at her disposal—such as nannies and cooks—that many working mothers and fathers simply can’t afford. Many professionals would surely like to get home at a reasonable hour but simply feel like they can’t.
“There are realities of every job—both spoken and unspoken,” says management consultant Star Dargin. She argues that its much easier to set time boundaries and work limits if you delineate your position and responsibilities with your employer.
“Clarity is a good thing,” Dargin stresses. “Understand and be clear about when you have to do it and what’s required for the job.”
Many employees would feel better about leaving work if they felt that their tasks were complete. The agitation that comes from leaving things unresolved drives them to stay longer, even if added hours only serve to create more vexation.
Dargin suggests resolution can come by setting deadlines on things that don’t have deadlines.
“Freelancers and part-time employees working 20 to 30 hours a week often get more done,” she says, because of self-imposed deadlines and “their laser-like focus and clear priorities.”
Markovitz notes that before many workers leave the office, they fill their heads up with to do lists for the next day, and worries and concerns about ongoing projects. He suggests that you instead make it a point to empty your head of all of the work clutter before you leave the office. Sometimes that step can be as simple as jotting everything down onto a notepad. Once everything from important project details to more trivial concerns is written down in front of you, it’s easier to put it aside for the next day.
Making Technology Work for You
If workers were better able to manage their time during the day, they would feel less agitated in their off-hours. Both Dargin and Markovitz stressed that technology is not an obstacle but an advantage to time management when used correctly.
For instance, Markovitz suggests replacing a simple to-do list with a time allocated calendar that represents tasks in a more visual fashion.
“A simple list provides the illusion that we’ll get all of that done,” he says. “But there’s an infinite amount of stuff you want to do, and a limited amount of time to do it. A calendar lets you know what you can do.”
Markovitz argues that moving to a calendar helps workers distinguish between big tasks and little tasks, which in turns helps you prioritize a limited resource—your time.
“Big tasks that are going to consume a lot of time need to go calender,” he say. “You don’t have to schedule email to follow up phone calls. Big things will never get done unless you’ve put them on the calendar and block out time and commitment [to finish them].”
Markovitz notes that any number of software programs—from Google Calendar to Outlook—can accommodate this visual approach to time management. But one more novel tool is the Daily Stack (see video above), a simple product that allows users to track work flow through physical representations of their tasks. The “stack” consists of a series of wood blocks with different colors and shapes, each representing a different assignment. The time interval for each task is determined by the size of the block. The base of the stack plugs into the computer, and communicates with a time tracking program.
This innovative approach to time management was created by designers Sebastian Rønde Thielke and Anders Højmose during a workshop at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. According to Højmose, it’s still technically a prototype. True to fashion, Højmose is working on it while he finishes his masters at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and launching a creative agency.
It’s a bit of a paradox: perhaps what he really needs to finish development of the Daily Stack is… the Daily Stack.
What about you? Do you have any tips for creating a boundary between home and work? Any other novel approaches to visualizing assignments and organizing your schedule? Let us know.