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This month TJay Belt asks us about managing work/life balance. With COVID this topic has gotten a lot of traction in various outlets. Everyone these days proclaims themselves an expert at balancing work and life. I claim no expertise, but I have learned painful lessons along the way in how not to achieve balance. I’ve stubbed my toes badly here and found myself deep in burnout territory. Each of the rules that follow serve as a facet of work/life boundaries for me. Some of the boundaries are more porous than others, but all of the rules work in this manner.

Rule #1 – After Hours E-mails Can Wait

I’ll admit this is a hard rule, and it can be a blurry line. I treat this as a very firm guideline, not a mandate. There are certain e-mails that call for more immediate responses and with a supportive company culture and good judgement this rule can go a long way to creating a healthy boundary.

Rule #2 – Lunch isn’t optional

Some people talk about flow and how elusive it can be. For me, flow, when it does occur can create a blinder to everything else around me. I’ve seen others with ADD describe the feeling as having a flurry of productivity come at once, followed by a lull. My shift isn’t so dramatic, but flow can create blinders to meals. The rule has become, lunch isn’t optional, I must take it even if it’s a little late. Since forcing myself to do this, I’ve found that solutions come during these breaks. This brings me to the next rule.

Rule #3 – Fresh air is good for you

We in the IT community get a bad reputation for holing up in some dark room staring at a screen all day. That reputation is a bit deserved, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do my part to try and change this. Taking a walk has helped me clear my head and change my focus. The very fact that I can’t move the mouse or write a line of code during that time gives my brain a chance to think through other possibilities and not stay stuck in a line of thought.

Rule #4 – Ask for help (except from unreasonable people)

Asking for help is hard. There are infinite examples of how asking for help my affect your day-to-day. Where this dovetails with work/life balance are dealing with work requests. Requestors may have no idea of the other work that you need to complete. With a positive company culture, and seeking to find a win-win scenario, you may be able to re-balance the requests.

My mother had a great quote, “you can’t reason with unreasonable people”, and being young and stubborn I didn’t pay it that much mind, but she’s right. Any workplace is bound to have an unreasonable person or two in it (or more). If you’ve found yourself seeking a win-win and found yourself with an unreasonable expectation, again, ask for help in negotiating with them.

Rule #5 – Leave toxic/abusive company cultures

Of all the rules I’ve made for myself, this one is a red line. There is a difference between having a job isn’t fulfilling, lacks challenge, or doesn’t offer room for advancement. Bad management, often cited as a reason for leaving a position, is different than toxic culture. I define a toxic culture as one that makes you feel “less than”, something that makes you question your own abilities and talents. Your ideas may have others claim credit for them, with or without credit attribution. When I experienced this level of toxicity it spilled over to all aspects of my life. When discussing a balance between work and life, life outside of work does exist, and can be incredibly challenging for many. When both sides are challenged at the same time a pressure relief is needed. This rule is part of this pressure relief system. Toxic/abusive company cultures cannot be tolerated as it leaves no room for any issues to exist in one’s life, and there will be issues.

To recap the rules and how they link together, rules #1 and #2 are meant to supply a boundary between personal and work time. How firmly the boundaries are set is up to the individual and the situation, but I believe these should be as firm as possible. Rule #3 is meant as a mental break and stress relief tool. The use of this rule is flexible, but its power shouldn’t be ignored. Rule #4 can be restated, no one knows, nor should be expected to know everything. Asking for help should be seen as sign of strength of character. Rule #5 is non-negotiable, toxic/abusive company cultures cannot be tolerated.

These are my rules for providing myself with boundaries between my personal and professional life. I have certainly made mistakes in setting these boundaries too porous at points in my career. Each time I have learned from the mistakes and made adjustments to my boundaries.