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Establish clear work-home boundaries

Don’t confuse having a career with having a life.
— Hillary Clinton

One of the biggest challenges for any employee is to establish clear boundaries separating work from home. Many people fall into this trap regularly, bringing their domestic challenges to the workplace and/or making their homes an extension of the office. While doing so may make sense or feel right in the moment, it can have negative repercussions, particularly if done regularly.

People who bring their personal problems to work can face a number of problems. For starters, depending on how often you do this and the nature of what you share, others around you might start to view you negatively, and may come to classify you as a chronic complainer.

To be polite, they might listen with a look of concern on their face and nod their head in agreement. But if you do this too often, people will start to tune you out, walk away as you approach, or silently wish for you to shut up and go somewhere else. Remember that everyone has problems and hardships. They have a hard enough time with their own and certainly don’t want to add yours to their list.

In addition, people who bring their problems to work often wind up redirecting their mental strength and energy away from their jobs. Most people can’t afford to share their limited energy and bandwidth with their personal life if they are to achieve what is expected of them.

Moreover, when you bring outside problems into the workplace, it limits your overall productivity because it kills your focus. This can lead you to make careless mistakes, which cost your employer time and money.

In order to avoid falling into this trap ask yourself some questions:

  • Will what I am sharing with co-workers solve my problems?
  • Will it possibly lead people to speak with me less often?
  • How will it impact my job performance from the view of my boss, supervisors or direct reports?

If you don’t like the answers, it probably means that you’d be better served confiding in only the closest of office friends or zipping it up completely.

As bad as it is to bring your personal life to work, the opposite can be even more damaging. Even if you love your job and approach it each day with passion and purpose, work can still be stressful, exhausting and all-consuming. When you bring it home with you, it encroaches upon your supposed relaxation time. It also takes away from the family/social time that is so crucial or, at the least, may put you in a foul, crabby mood.

How can you avoid falling into the “bring the work home” trap so that you can get the relaxation and quality personal time that you need and deserve?

Begin this process before your workday formally ends. As you near its conclusion, make a list of projects that you still need to complete, in order of priority. If not enough time remains in the current workday, map out how you will be able to address these tasks as soon as possible on the next day. Review this list at the beginning of each workday and work towards its completion.

In terms of late-day emails, consider leaving them for the next day. Phone calls can go to voicemail, which you can check just to make sure that there’s nothing urgent. In those cases, you will respond accordingly. If the message is not urgent, resolve to take care of it the following day.

As you walk in the front door, be careful not to bring along any problems that will affect your time at home. One way to do this is to hang a “problem hook” by the front door, as illustrated by the following story:

Once there was a young father who was unemployed. A kind old man saw an opportunity to help him. He asked the young man if would like to bring his tools and spend a few days working on repairing an old fence he had around his large property. The latter readily agreed.

The young father had a less-than-productive first day. His old truck broke down about 2 miles from the old man’s house, forcing him to walk. He arrived 45 minutes late. Then the hammer that he had brought broke about halfway through the day. To make matters worse, he severely twisted his ankle towards the end of the day and could barely walk.

The kind old man offered him a ride home. When they had almost reached the house, the young father invited him in to meet his family. As the two men approached the rickety door of the humble home, the tired, beat-down worker paused on the porch and touched a large coat hook with both of his hands. When opening the door, the young father completely transformed. A big broad smile came across his face as he hugged his three small happy children and kissed his wife.

Later, as the young man escorted his guest out the door, they again passed the large coat hook. The old man’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked his worker about what he had seen him do earlier.

He was told: “That’s my problem hook. I know I am going to have problems, but one thing I never want to do is bring them home to my wife and children. So I simply hang my problems on the hook before I enter my house. When I leave in the morning I pick them up again.”

The young father continued. “The odd thing about it is when I pick them up in the morning they don’t seem to be as big and heavy as they were when I dropped them off the night before.”

Whether choose to hang a problem hook or just identify a symbolic one (such as threshold of your home), such symbolism can help erect an absolute barrier between your work experience and what lies behind the door. Why subject your family to the challenges and stressors from the past 10 hours of your day?

As you enter your home, think about the new opportunities that you will have to connect with those that you really love. Even better, identify the best thing that happened that day and share it right as you enter, even if it was just a good cup of coffee or the fact that the train arrived on time.

If you are completely wound up and need time to decompress, give your spouse a heads up and spend a few minutes alone at first. Some activities that can help you relax include resting, meditation, exercise or a shower.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of completely shutting down after hours. In that case, try to work with your team at work to minimize the impact of such intrusions and keep them to a minimum. But don’t invite such invasions by checking work email or doing other work-related tasks that can wait until the morning.

When you feel the itch to jump back into work mode, I suggest that you consider the wise words of Steve Blank, author of "The Startup Owner’s Manual." Blank wrote, “When you’re gone would you rather have your gravestone say, ‘He never missed a meeting’ or one that said, ‘He was a great father’?”

This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.

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