Phoebe Gavin is a life coach and author of The Workplace Guide to Time Management.
Your employer doesn’t deserve more than eight hours of your day. When lockdown turned billions of people into remote workers overnight, they immediately started working longer hours. Maybe it was necessary in the beginning – after all, every office-bound company was in crisis. But as time passed and we figured out how to work from home, we failed to learn the most important remote work skill: protecting personal time.
Few employers took concrete steps to help employees transition to remote work in a way that protected their physical and mental health. Some employers stepped up to truly support employees during the pandemic, only to later claw back those worker-centric benefits (often despite massive profits).
I don’t mean to make business out to be a villain, but business exists to make money, not joy. Forward-thinking leaders understand that employee-centric cultures that facilitate work-life balance are good for business. Unfortunately, those are rarer than they should be. If you can’t depend on your employer to create an environment that facilitates work-life balance, what are you supposed to do? You have to be the CEO of your own time.
Start by building awareness of what’s happening and why: something is driving you to overwork. Is it an explicitly stated expectation from your boss? Is it an implicit norm in your industry, company, or team? Or is it internal pressure you’re putting on yourself?
Between the obligation we feel to our teams and the anxiety caused by long to-do lists, it’s easy to feel internal pressure to overwork. But the pressure is often just that: a feeling. You can beat internal pressure by seeking explicit expectations from leaders and training yourself to let those expectations be your guide, instead of your emotions.
Breaking the overwork habit is easier said than done, though. Start by committing to a work window slightly narrower than your current, and only working beyond it in the case of a true emergency. Then, slowly narrow the window until it reflects your preferences.
At first, my clients often find this difficult because it makes them feel guilty. If the idea of restricting your work window inspires guilt, flip your perspective: would your employer feel too guilty to ask you to work overtime? Even the most progressive and employee-centric workplaces will still take every minute you give them in the best and worst of times.
As you experiment with reclaiming your time, you’ll notice two things that might surprise you. First, things don’t fall apart just because you’re practicing healthy boundaries. Second, when you’re proactive about communicating your time boundaries, people are more likely to respect them.
For some, long or unpredictable hours are an inevitable part of the job. In this case, be as clear as possible about what is required and what would be considered ‘above and beyond’.
Work-life balance is not a state, it’s a skill. With practice, it can become second nature. Give yourself permission to try – even if it’s uncomfortable in the beginning. After all, employers will always prioritise themselves. So, ask yourself: who will prioritise you if you don’t prioritise yourself?