How to Stop Working All the Time

At the University of Houston’s Women’s Studies Table Talk event, I facilitated an invigorating discussion about how we live in a 24/7, “give me what I’m asking for right now” world. Many of us work in companies with a high performance, immediate response culture that makes it so hard to stop working all the time. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is possible to stop work from taking over your life if you start with what you can control.

Here are four simple strategies to get you started:

1. Recognize your mindset.

Your mindset plays a huge role in all of this. I’ll give you an example. A retired nurse at our table asked a great question, “Why can’t something wait until tomorrow? In nursing, if you don’t get everything done during your shift, a patient could die. I just don’t understand what can’t wait in business.”

As you know, when you’re “in it,” it is so hard to see how crazy it might look or sound from an outside perspective. It’s hard to keep in mind that for most of us, in our jobs no one will die if everything doesn’t get done today. Just remember to focus on completing what does matter the most. In the end, that’s what really counts.

2. Help others see your focus on business goals and results.

Do you worry about what others will think if you start setting boundaries? For example, will others look at how you work (e.g., your hours or schedule, and whether you’re in the office or working at home) as a bigger indicator of your commitment and performance than your actual results? For example, if you leave work at 5 p.m. every day, even if you don’t have a socially acceptable excuse like a child to pick up, will they think you’re just not working hard enough even if you’re getting the job done?

If this sounds familiar, think about how you can proactively communicate and manage up. Just remember that others, including your boss, are far too busy to notice everything you’re doing, so what they do see is often their picture of reality. Be strategic about providing positive snapshots of your performance — but do it with integrity and authenticity. For example, keep them regularly informed about important issues and how you are managing through them, or your progress on a key business goal.

3. Set personal boundaries.

Setting personal boundaries that allow you to maintain your energy and productivity is critical. Let’s look at a couple of examples. A woman at our table agreed to start turning off her BlackBerry at 8 p.m. every day, which will also help her stop dreaming about work! Another woman said she consistently leaves the office at 5 to make a 5:30 class at the gym, and she has a workout buddy meet her there (which makes it much harder not to show up). As a result, others around her know how important exercise is to her, and she has in effect “trained them” to expect her to leave at 5 no matter what. Both of these women will be so much more productive by setting limits that allow them to recharge, instead of just working more hours that lead to burnout.

4. Ask for help.

I know that asking for help is particularly hard if you’re a high-achieving perfectionist. I will just ask you one question: When you say “yes” to doing everything perfectly, what are you saying “no” to by default? It may be exercise, time with your kids, or time for yourself — the possibilities are endless.

Perfectionist or not, I would urge you to stretch yourself to think about creative ways to ask for and get help. Remember, there are plenty of eager young professionals out there wanting to develop themselves, even if they don’t report directly to you.

Pick one of the four areas above to start with, and find someone to hold you accountable for whatever action step you decide to take. You might be surprised that once you start making changes to stop working all the time, others may be eager to make changes, too.