Work life balance: set boundaries, get effective, learn to say no

There are many positive skills and habits we know should master and practice in our lives. Finding time to practice these skills may be challenging. In fact, being skilled we are often sought after by other people. If we please all people who need our attention, we may lose the skills we cherish. Setting the boundaries is the best way to protect your investment in self-improvement, have a healthy career and family life.
This post is inspired by this, this, this, this, and this articles.

Four elements of our day

There are many productivity guides suggesting to cut and sort our time in various ways. I got confused using them. For my personal use, I try to balance four elements: career, family, self, sleep.

  • Career takes the bigger part of our day five days a week. A day job is a very convenient way to make money, socialize and produce value for others. If you do not have a day job, you should probably have a very good reason for it. We often complain about certain aspects of our jobs, but this is a love-hate relationship. When we lose a job, we do everything we can to be hired again. We love our jobs and fear to lose them. The more demanding the job is, the more we usually love it. If there are no boundaries, the job may take over our lives.
  • Family is something of the upmost value. We love our families and we are prepared to do everything for it. Most of the tasks involved with the family are not fun: we cook, clean, drive people around, oversee that other family people do what is best for them, and help them when it is difficult. Once these tasks are over, we can have a lot of fun together, provided other family members get their things done. Most of the time the other family members have some other ideas, so family fun is something really hard to arrange. If we fail some of the tasks related to the family life, usually there will be no immediate effect, so the family life typically is the first to suffer from our stress. The effects of neglect accumulate for years and we typically regret when it is too late.
  • Sleep is a physiological need. We cannot fully ignore it and we cannot fully indulge it. Typically a healthy sleep is ~7 hours and most of the nights we do as much sleep as we need. If we cut on sleep, our body will let us know…
  • Self time is something we need to generate actively and consciously, nobody will do that for us. Sports, meditation, reading, self-improvement, hobbies, friends, and even mindlessly watching TV too tired to do anything else – all belong to the “self” time. We need it for many reasons to replenish our energies, learn new things and stay productive. Typically we either have too much of it and get bored or get too little of it and get exhausted.

Set boundaries

To get balance between the four elements we need to set boundaries. Usually, we set boundaries both in space and in time. We work in an office for specific work hours, we do family duties at home when the family members are awake, we sleep at night in the bedroom. “Self” time does not get its own boundaries and we must be creative with what we have: a car drive to listen to radio and audio books, a country club to do sports and meditation, a home computer to study new things…

If we do not set proper boundaries, there will be contingencies. Occasionally I need to have a job-related video call from home and family members arrive and make noise, or I am spending time with family and get an important mail I must answer. The balance between job and family life is most apparent. When our family members wake us in the middle of the night, the sleep gets affected. While I am writing this post, my wife is doing the homework with my kids, and they interfere with my “self ” time.

There are several steps to set boundaries.

  • Have well-defined boundaries and criteria for other people to respect. If you do not know your boundaries, other people will not know them.
  • Set up physical ways to guard your boundaries: work and rest in different spaces, use a personal computer possibly with noise cancellation headpiece [I use Bose QC20 with some white noise], close the bedroom door when you rest. Leave some space for interaction, for example, be ready to be called when you watch TV on a couch.
  • Explain your boundaries to other people: boss, partners, wife, kids. Make a sort of informal contract.
  • Your boundaries will always be tested. Be flexible, but not too flexible. Learn from your failures, change the boundaries if you must.
  • Expect reciprocity. Respect the boundaries of other people.
  • Some situations simply cannot be controlled. If you have a newborn baby, there is no point in setting proper boundaries. Accept some disruption in your life, do claim your boundaries back when the time is right.

Get effective

When you set boundaries, you are expected to be effective. Like my wife says: “When you are here, be 100% present”. By being effective I mean getting things done. There may be different criteria for success:

  • At work we typically have milestones to complete and meetings to attend. As long as we complete our milestones in time and voice our thought in the important meetings, we will be effective in our job. When it comes to completing milestones, productivity is very important.
  • With family we typically need to be there when they need you. You do not need to be very productive in home chores, you may want to multitask some of them. Occasionally my wife works in the evening, and I need to take care of 3 kids, food and dishes, and also clean the mess after them. Multitasking is the key to sanity.
  • When we sleep, the emphasis should be on effective timing. The REM stage of sleep is the most important of sleep stages. If we time perfectly, we may need very little sleep. If we get interrupted in our sleep, we may be tired even after a very long sleep. If we are productive sleepers, we will get asleep and wake up approximately the same time every day, and usually, we will not need a wake-up call.
  • For ourselves we may have many different criteria, and balance between them is the key. If we spend too much effort on sports and self-improvement we will get exhausted, if we spend most of our time on recreation we will achieve very little in our lives. Art or charity will give us purpose, sports or meditation will make us healthy. A productive person can fulfill most of the needs most of the time.

Learn to say no

We need to know how to say no to others and to ourselves. Saying no to others is relatively simple.

  • Explain that you understand the need of the other person.
  • Transparently show the effect it will have on your life.
  • Demonstrate how you are already very effective in what you are asked to do.
  • Propose alternative solutions.
  • Brainstorm and negotiate.

Sometimes you will get things your way, other times you will give in, most commonly a compromise will be found.

Saying no to ourselves is harder. We get a new threat or an opportunity or a perfectly good idea and suddenly we need to prioritize: which of the old tasks do we keep and which tasks get replaced. It is important to have some “buffer” tasks to treat unexpected situations, and you will be most tempted to remove from your schedule all buffers. Do not give in to your pride and ambition, it is better to do 3 things properly than 5 things almost good enough.

Self assesment

How well do you set boundaries? Are you getting exhausted? Do you need more self-time? Are you prepaired to say no and throw away some perfectly good projects simply because you do not have time for them?

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