Boundaries at Work: New Rules for Thriving in the Digital Age

MultitaskingLast week I wrote about the challenges of living in a “boundaryless” world – one in which we can (and do) bounce back and forth between work and non-work activities.

It is now common to communicate with colleagues and friends all over the world, to take care of personal needs in the middle of our work days, and to engage in work-related activities at all hours of the day and night.

(see “In a Boundaryless World, Peak Performance is More Difficult Than Ever”)

How many times have you been part of a global conference call at 4 or 5 AM local time, or completed a work memo and emailed it off at 10 PM? How many times does an email or a phone call interrupt your train of thought and push into you into putting that report aside to work on a completely different project? And worst of all, how many times do you interrupt yourself to explore a completely unconnected idea that just popped into your head?

Yes, it’s nice, and sometimes even refreshing, to jump from one topic or task to another, but it can also be incredibly stressful; and, as we are beginning to understand, not particularly productive. For example, The Wall Street Journal reported that:

Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

See also, “Worker, Interrupted; The Cost of Task Switching,” in Fast Company.

Make My Own RulesBut I don’t want to dwell on our short attention spans, or on the realities of work interruptions per se. No, today I’m going to offer three simple “New Rules” for creating your own boundaries – for setting limits and reducing those interruptions.

New Rule: Turn off your email, or at least set your inbox on Manual, so you only get emails when you ask for them. If you feel particularly frisky, turn off the ringer on your phone as well.

I know several people who have set up email auto-responders that announce to all their correspondents that they only look at email once or twice a day.

Yes, I know, that’s hard to do. But once you’ve discovered the value of uninterrupted time and of concentrating on just one topic, it becomes an easy way to take back just a little bit of control. And it quickly becomes a habit because it leaves you feeling back in charge, more productive, and even personally powerful.

Believe it or not, being voluntarily cut off from the world for even an hour is a wonderfully liberating experience.

New Rule: Stop work at a regular time each day. And don’t answer work emails, don’t respond to text messages, and don’t do any work-related web surfing the rest of the evening.

Let’s face it, working 24×7, or close to it, is as much an ego trip as it is anything else. It makes you feel needed and connected. But it is absolutely true that work expands to fill the time available. Take a few nights and weekends off; you will be amazed to discover that the important stuff gets done anyway. And your colleagues just might respect you more for putting your family and friends ahead of your work obligations.

The late Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas once observed that no one has a tombstone reading “I wish I’d spent more time working.” These days there may be some people who really would like to work more, but I believe they are still a distinct minority who have gotten their priorities mixed up.

Now, I admit that I sometimes, in rare cases, violate this rule. But I do it only when absolutely necessary, and with some regret. I’m not perfect, but having a regular “stopping time” as my norm definitely makes it easier for me set that boundary and to shift painlessly from work to the rest of my life.

New Rule: Make appointments with yourself – and keep them.

It may seem like overkill, but I’m slowly learning to become more disciplined in the way I use my work day by treating my calendar as my To-Do list. That is, I set up work blocks with specific tasks and times on my calendar. And I do my best to treat those “appointments” as seriously as I do any commitments I make to others (telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, and so on).

For many years I operated more instinctively and more spontaneously. I would let my deadlines and my email inbox dictate what I did from hour to hour, and I would often get mired in details that extended a particular task well beyond when I had expected to have it done. Needless to say, I usually felt behind schedule and important tasks often didn’t get done at all.

Just Do It!

These are just three New Rules that I’ve been doing my best to practice this year, and they are definitely helping me feel more productive and less stressed. That’s a nice combination that makes for a much more satisfying work experience.

What’s worked for you? I’d love to hear your advice. What rules do you follow to create meaningful boundaries?

Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can apply these New Rules to produce personal flow, focus, and peak performance for you and your team.


2 replies
  1. Bill Krebs
    Bill Krebs says:

    Jim, that is great advice and I will try it starting today as I head off
    to NeoCon East in Philadelphia.

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