Thanks to the internet and our mobile phones, we have a 24/7 connection to the office. Most of us don’t want to be in the office all day long—but this level of connectivity means it can be difficult to escape office life, especially when we’re working from home.
So how can you establish and enforce healthy boundaries that promote both meaningful work productivity and a more fulfilling personal life?
Addicted to email
Email is our lifeline to the office. And a 2015 survey revealed the extent of our email addiction. Here are four key findings:
- Survey respondents spent an average of 6.3 hours per day checking their email (3.2 hours on work email and 3.1 hours on personal email).
- 90% of respondents check their work email outside of work (as well as check personal email during work hours).
- 30% of respondents check their email in the morning while in bed. (Respondents also check their emails while talking on the phone or driving.)
- 47% of respondents expected their email usage to increase over the next five years.
Negative side effects
Because email has become an indispensable way to stay connected to the office, we are spending more time in front of a screen trying to stay ahead of work. This tricks us into believing that we’re more productive than ever—which may be true up to a point—but there are more cons than pros here.
Our email addiction and inability to “turn off” from work has resulted in an erosion of our overall health and wellness: we lead more sedentary lives, which is more hazardous than smoking, diabetes, and heart disease. And our nonstop connection to work is a risk factor triggering anxiety and depression.
Email, and the constant multitasking we engage in while checking it, has also fractured our attention. This hurts our personal relationships and our enjoyment outside of the office.
Establish your boundaries
The key to conquering your email addiction and to maximizing meaningful work productivity is to have healthy boundaries. Your boundaries are habits that support what’s most important to you. Here’s how to get started:
- Get clear on how you’re spending your time—both at work and at home—on a typical workday. Do a time audit to help you to identify and organize high-priority activities and “time-suckers,” like checking email.
- Consolidate time-suckers. This will free up valuable time to focus on high-priority activities, like your big work project or dinner with loved ones. For instance, if your time audit shows that you’re tackling your inbox several times daily, ask yourself if there’s a way to consolidate that to just one or two dedicated times each day.
- Identify helpful habits. Once you have taken steps to improve how you spend your time, you need habits that will support those improvements. For example, if you find yourself checking your work email on your phone after hours, you can set limits on your email screen time through your phone’s settings or an app. Or once you end your work day, you can put your phone on silent and turn off notifications.
Set new expectations
Establishing new boundaries is not just about you—it’s also an opportunity to show others how to value your time.
Think of it this way: when you make yourself available at all hours outside of work, you’re setting the expectation that you will always be available. However, your boundaries can change not just your behavior, but the behavior of the people you work with.
If you don’t respond to work emails after a certain hour, that cues what your availability is to your co-workers. Over time, they will become more conditioned and discerning about how—and when—they reach out to you when the workday is over. You can further facilitate showing others when to engage with you by putting your work hours in your email signature with clear instructions on how to reach you for something urgent.
Make it easy for yourself
With practice, it gets easier to enforce your boundaries, but keep in mind that doing so will need to adapt with changes within your life. To help you, here are some things you can do to make your life easier:
- Power off your work devices. When you are done working for the day, power your work devices fully off.
- Avoid consistently working overtime. You can achieve this by doing your time audit and making better use of the time you already have during office hours.
- Unsubscribe. This includes newsletters you haven’t read in a long while and any other marketing emails you may have signed up for using your work email.
- Set your maximum response time. One business day? Two? Don’t let emails pile up, and use that dedicated inbox time you set after your time audit to keep things manageable.
- Talk about your boundaries. Clearly and respectfully, let your manager and co-workers know how and when to reach you.
- Use your vacation time. Unplugging from the office for several days is a healthy way to honor your work boundaries and hit refresh when you need to.
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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.