Since I left my full-time job to work for myself earlier this year, many people have asked me how I like it. My answer: I absolutely love it. I get to talk about fundraising and workplace wellness strategies all day long. I get to work with a mix of mission-driven clients who inspire me each week. I get to meet new people and try out new ideas on a regular basis. It is literally the job I dreamed up for myself over the past year. But truthfully, I have always loved my work. I’ve had the privilege of working for mission-driven organizations throughout my career, and I have genuinely enjoyed it.
I have also always worked a lot.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant identifies as an “engaged workaholic,” aka, someone who is happily obsessed with their work. Maybe you, like me, can relate. This is different from the workaholic that typically comes to mind: a worker who puts in long hours that make him/her miserable. Typical workaholism puts you at risk for things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. Scientists don’t see an increase in negative health consequences for engaged workaholics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks to working all the time. Even engaged workaholics are at risk for burnout.
In their book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, Beth Canter and Aliza Sherman lay out a “Nonprofit Burnout Assessment.” It’s designed for nonprofits, but I think it’s a useful tool for any mission-driven profession. They illustrate the ease with which we can all go from “Passion Driven,” to “Passion Depleted,” by constantly prioritizing work over everything else.
So we know it’s important to set boundaries when we love our work, but how do we do this? In the same way that it can be tempting to go for a cookie when you’re feeling that 4pm energy dip, it can be tempting to log in to your computer to do just one more thing for work at midnight. How do you fight the urge and set up healthy working habits? The same way we make any habit change: reframing our understanding, making small changes, and setting up the conditions for success.
The reframe: Your work won’t thrive if you don’t.
You know the old saying, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?” I say, “all work and nothing else will kill Jack’s creativity, ability to think outside the box, and eventually his productivity. In addition to making him a total bore.”
Hobbies, volunteer work, time spent with friends and family, and self-care practices bring innumerable benefits to our work lives. They can spark our creativity, expand our worldviews, give our brains the space to make new neural connections, and keep our minds & bodies healthy so that we can bring our best selves to our work. In short, you are doing a disservice to the work that you love if you don’t make room for the things that are critical to your wellbeing.
Small changes lead to big ones
If you couldn’t possibly imagine taking your work email off of your smartphone, here are just a few bite-sized suggestions to help you start setting those boundaries.
- Pick a time this week to turn your phone on airplane or do-not-disturb mode. It can be for an hour while you’re spending time with family, seven hours while you are sleeping, or for 15 minutes while you hit the head. Choose a time and stick to it.
- Set in-office hours on your calendar so that colleagues can’t schedule meetings with you outside of those hours.
- Leave the office on the dot at the hour you’re “supposed” to be done with work.
- Choose one day where you won’t log in to do extra work after the workday is through.
- Eat lunch away from your desk one day this week. Bonus points if you get a coworker to do this with you!
- Set a “bedtime” for the week and stick to it. Pro tip: set an alarm 30 mins before so you can be reminded to power down & unplug.
- Do something you enjoy that you haven’t done in a while.
Setting up the conditions for success
Not every strategy fits every situation, but these tactics are tried and tested ways to set yourself up for future healthy habits.
- Find an accountability partner or partners. In the case of work, maybe it’s a co-worker or a colleague who does similar work somewhere else. Agree to check in with one another about the boundaries you are trying to set.
- Talk to your supervisor or HR team about your intentions. We can be partners in setting office culture as much as we can be victims to it.
- Schedule your free time, me time, or off time the same way you schedule your workday. By using the system that already works for you, you’ll be following a habit you’ve already cultivated.
- Commit to something else, like a class or outing that requires you to make time for non-work activity.
Over the years, I unwittingly adopted behaviors that helped me develop solid boundaries around work. I started racing half-marathons and later triathlons – two activities that require me to spend at least a few hours disconnected from work and keep my body active and healthy. I make volunteer commitments that engage me in communities outside of my work. For about a year, I had an iPhone that was so old it couldn’t handle my work email. I learned to live without the constant connection.
Reflecting on these unintentional shifts and the positive effects they’ve had on my wellbeing and my career is what set me on the path to study this intersection and build a business sharing best practices with others. Setting boundaries when you love your work is tough, but it will open up possibilities in your work and personal life that you couldn’t previously imagine.