Leave Work at the Office

Three ways to prevent your job from ruining your life.

He can't be serious, Sara thought. Sara had been recruited from a Fortune 500 firm by a fast-growing startup, and it was her first day at the new gig. The president of the company had just handed her a BlackBerry and said, "Keep this with you at all times."

That Saturday morning, one of the founders sent an e-mail to the senior leadership team. By 5pm, there were more than 30 replies to it. Sara soon learned that at her new company, there was no concept of detachment from work. She bitterly grieved the loss. In a matter of months, Sara's job began to seriously interfere with her family life.

One study found that half of employees believe their current workload is unsustainable. As a result, 33 percent of people start thinking about work the moment they wake up and 75 percent of them think about it until they go to sleep at night.

Luckily, Sara's story has a happy ending. Less than a year after being handed that BlackBerry, she left the company for a job that allowed her to have a life. But for many, the concept of a real life outside of work is like a unicorn: It might exist, but you haven't seen it.

Whether you're spending too much time at the office or taking your stress out on your family, allowing your job to control your life is a slippery slope of misery. More scientifically, research shows that workers who experience such conflict are less healthy, less happy, and more likely to engage in passive coping behaviors like overeating, drinking, or drugs.

Want your job to stop ruining your life? Here are three tips to end the madness:

1) Stop wasting time at work.

More hours at work don't always make us more productive. Think about a typical day in the office. You arrive, fire up your computer, and answer e-mails. Then, maybe you wander down the hall to the coffee machine and leisurely pour yourself a cup. You run into your friends and discuss last night's TV lineup. You wander back to your office, start a task, and get interrupted by a member of your team. And on it goes. By the time you leave at 7pm, you might have had only five to six productive hours.

Do you ever wonder if there's a better way? We live in a society where the number of hours we spend at work can be a barometer for our self-worth. Because we spend 12 hours per day at work, we think we must be valuable. This reasoning is dangerous and illogical. It is not a crime to do things efficiently; if you can get the same result in eight hours versus 10 and spend two more hours with your family, do it!

To get more done in less time, use the One Less Thing Principle. For every work activity, ask yourself:

  • Can this activity be focused so less time is spent completing it?
  • Can this activity be delegated to another person or group?
  • Can this activity be stopped?

2) Harness the power of power breaks.

Just like Sara discovered, being tethered to your e-mail 24/7 isn't a good idea. One study examined the effect of uninterrupted work on our ability to focus. The researchers asked two groups of students to complete a 40-minute task that required concentration. One group simply completed the task. The other group was asked to stop the task and memorize a set of numbers at three points while they completed it. The results were striking. Even though the second group spent less time on the task, they performed better. Viewing the numbers served as a "power break," which let them briefly turn their attention from the task to something else.

Similarly, power breaks from work help us perform better. Certainly, it's not easy to take a three-week vacation and lock your phone in the hotel safe. But at a minimum, carve out evenings and weekends to escape your "technology tether." Perhaps you can't unplug every evening, then aim for three evenings per week. If you have to work on a Saturday, don't work on Sunday. Find what is best for you.

3) Get moving.

There's a great deal of evidence that exercise reduces stress. In particular, high-intensity workouts have proven effective in reducing anxiety. And recent research suggests that exercise actually decreases work-family conflict. In a study of 476 workers, Russell Clayton and his colleagues found that people who exercised regularly had less conflict between work and home. Why? They argue that exercise can be a powerful way to "psychologically detach from work." So, it will pay off to keep your New Year's resolution to exercise more. Not only will you look better in your jeans, but also you'll have a more balanced life!