January wrap-up: The life-changing magic of setting boundaries

The first month of 2021 is a wrap! While it has felt a bit like a continuation of 2020, I still tried my best to not fall back into old habits and keep the motivation of a fresh start going.

If you are new, this blog is to document my year-long experiment of unlearning ambition and challenging my obsession with productivity. Each month, I focus on a different strategy or area of my life. For the month of January, I worked on setting better boundaries around my time, specifically at work.

My first two goals were:

  • No working in the evenings or on the weekends.
  • No checking email while not working.

I did both! These were easy wins since I’ve been pretty good at keeping these boundaries in the past… mainly because I’m so exhausted at the end of the day and week, there is no point in working more. Plus, I have read so many studies about how checking email outside of work is awful for you, so I am pretty much off that habit. This month was a good test to confirm that I can successfully avoid these habits!

As I wrote about in more detail at the beginning of the month, I started a new practice of marking my calendar to show that I am off work during my lunch break and after my day ends. With everyone working from home, it has become a lot harder for people to set these kinds of boundaries. I used to walk out of the office, so my coworkers knew that I was done for the day. So on the first day of the month, I marked my calendar and set these goals:

  • Completely logging off (not checking Teams or email) during lunch and after 3:30 p.m.
  • Not responding to texts outside of those hours.
  • Declining meetings that fall outside those hours.

This part was not as clear of a “win”, but it sparked some helpful conversations and I ended up meeting these goals more often than I would have in the past. I also made a lot of progress through the month in feeling less guilty for not being a constantly available millennial.

I did realize that it is important to not be too rigid in setting these types of boundaries. A better approach (and what I did in practice) is to try to stick to them as much as possible. If I couldn’t, then I would find a way to adjust my schedule while still keeping my hours down. For example, If I ended up having to take a meeting late one day, then I would start later the next day to compensate. I needed to be a little flexible with these goals, simply due to the nature of work. However, they were good benchmarks and I would recommend this exercise for anyone who wants to work less.

The first week of January I felt like I had “failed” completely. On the very first day of the month back at work a meeting popped up at 4:30 and I realized it was important to attend, so I did. I was also organizing two major events that week and I ended up working past my stop time every day except Friday. I think I worked about 50 hours. While I felt like a failure at first, I acknowledged that this week was the exception not the rule. For the rest of the month, I logged off on time pretty much every day!

Another major win was delegating a series of meetings that fall in the late afternoon to another colleague. I felt a sting of missing out on these meetings, since they are something I genuinely enjoy. But I had to come to terms with the fact that the timing just does not work for my natural rhythms… while I feel like Wonder Woman first thing in the morning, I am pretty much as productive and coherent as a drunk five-year-old any time past 4 in the afternoon.

How did my coworkers react?

One of the biggest hurdles in setting boundaries at work is dealing with the expectations of coworkers and the general culture of your workplace. I was most nervous about this aspect, but actually found this it was not as big a deal as I made it in my head… I know, shocker.  

Early in the month, I told my supervisor that I had adjusted my calendar and wanted to stick my schedule. She thought it was a great idea and said she would do her best to not schedule any meetings with me when I am not working.

I also had a conversation with the person who I work most closely with (and who I had previously had the most boundary issues with) early in the month. They had noticed the change in my calendar and was curious. I explained that since I start work early, I need to end early. They said they didn’t even realize that I started working so early. I could have sworn I talked about this with all of my coworkers, but I realize that people really do live in their own worlds (especially with everyone at home) and aren’t keeping track of your schedule.

Simply setting hours on my calendar sparked the question and cleared up something that has been an issue in the past. If I had just been honest in the past and said, “hey, I actually try to stop working at 3:30 so I’ll need to get back to you in the morning…” sooner, I probably could have solved this problem a long time ago.

Did anyone get upset with me?

I want to be honest here so that other people know what to expect. Yes, there were a few times that people were looking for me after 3:30 or at lunch and I did not respond immediately. While I interpreted some frustration from their emails/chats, when I looked at them more closely, I realized that I was reading too much into it. In one case, a coworker sent an email at 4 asking if I had time for a quick chat. I didn’t respond, but apologized the next day, and offered to talk when they were available. They were not upset at all and the issue they wanted to discuss wasn’t super urgent.

Something that really helped me with these situations was realizing that it is better to apologize a few times for these types of minor inconveniences than to work in a way that would make me an unproductive, bad employee in the long-term. I heard this given as advice on Cal Newport’s podcast Deep Questions. Over time, people will be so impressed by your performance and level of productivity, that they won’t even think about the times you have been unavailable.

Overall, I would say January was a success. It was a small start, but it allowed me to set a baseline that I will continue through the rest of the year. For February, I am going to be focusing on my perfectionism. Look for a post in the next few days for more on that!

-M

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