Work-Life Balance: Managing Boundaries

Against a growing trend of hybrid working and blurring work-life boundaries, how do you maintain your focus on what's important and preserve your sanity? Here are 5 top tips to help.

Samantha Ng

1/15/20244 min read

gold and silver round frame magnifying glass
gold and silver round frame magnifying glass

At one point in my early 20s as a junior consultant, I found myself flying out to a client location on a Sunday, working 8am - 1am everyday and having meals on the go, before flying back on a Saturday for a short recovery at home. So short, I could check in and get the tickets for my Sunday flight the minute I landed on a Saturday. Work was life; life was work - there were no real boundaries between them. Dating was... well, let's just say it was still possible but inevitably short-lived. Fast forward 20 years and a LOT has changed post-pandemic - remote working is widely accepted so fewer people have to live on the crazy flight schedules I had, but the challenge of setting the right work-life boundaries still remain - complicated this time by 'work' and 'life' sharing the same physical space.

For the few of us who are doing work that we love, work IS life, and work-life integration is great. For the rest of us who would like to maintain that separation and maximise our well-being, how do we manage the boundaries between them and achieve the 'balance' (or 'mix', which I prefer) we want? I say 'mix' because it's never 50-50, and some ultra-priorities, like keeping fit, support both 'work' and 'life' outcomes.

1. Know your priorities and their importance vs. urgency

First, list all the priorities across 'work' and 'life', and ask yourself if anything is missing. Just because you aren't already spending time on it, does not mean something isn't or shouldn't be important. A priority many people tend to forget, is 'me-time' - much needed time for relaxation, meditation or learning so that you can recharge yourself for another busy day or invest in new skills. Once you're satisfied you have a complete list, categorise them using the Urgent/Important Matrix (also known as the Eisenhower Matrix):

2. Schedule your priorities

Most people spend a lot of time doing what's urgent / important and urgent / not important, because urgency is often mistaken for importance. An oft-cited example is responding to that 'urgent' email from a colleague demanding submission of a presentation by the end of the day, for a meeting taking place in two weeks. While deadlines were set for a reason, is the presentation important, and is the audience getting that early preview key? If not, push back on the request, and consider if some of the less important elements can be delegated or outsourced instead. Conversely, we underinvest time on the important but not urgent priorities (e.g. 'me-time' for upskilling or relaxing oneself, or networking to expand our opportunities). Set time aside to plan these out and act on them.

3. Create the environment to do 'deep work' on your priorities

If you've ever tried to multi-task, you'll know that at least one of your tasks will fall short on quality because you are not giving it your full attention. 'Shallow' work can create inefficiencies and increase the chances of re-work required. When it's time to focus on the priorities you've scheduled, make sure you create the most productive environment for you to complete it. If you're a morning person, do it in the morning. If you're a night owl, do it in the quiet of the night. Do it someplace that makes you feel motivated, with no distractions, and if it helps - employ tools that help you focus (coffee, snacks, music...or simply nothing). A colleague of mine used to listen to Taylor Swift whenever he was working at his desk - if it works, it works!

4. Set boundaries and communicate them

Setting boundaries is crucial for maintaining work-life balance. Boundaries can be physical (time, space) or mental / emotional. The latter has become increasingly important amidst a rise in remote working, making it harder for people to physically separate their work and living spaces. If you can, try not to work where you sleep, as it makes it harder to 'switch off' when you need to. Clearly define your working hours and communicate them to your colleagues and clients - when your boundaries are breached, point them out gently. Unless people know your boundaries and are reminded of them, your boundaries can't be maintained. As a working mum, I block my diary every morning before 9am and evening between 5-8pm and make it clear that my working hours are designed around my children. Most importantly, respect these boundaries yourself and avoid the temptation to constantly check emails or work outside of designated times. When you switch between 'work' and 'home' while working from home, make sure you employ techniques that help you switch gears mentally - for example, a change of clothes, the removal of make-up, and/or turning on (or changing) the music. This will also make it harder for you to switch back into 'work' unintentionally.

5. Be kind to yourself

Finally, make sure you care for yourself, and give yourself a break. Know what good enough is, and save your perfectionist tendencies for the most important things in life (which by the way, includes self-care!) If you need to, enrol in a negotiations and bargaining course and learn when to give/take vs. fight for what's important. And don't forget - you are not alone - there are loved ones and trusted colleagues around you who can, should, and most likely want to give you support - if you communicate with them. Asking for help may open up doors you never knew, and get you one step closer to that ideal work-life mix you desire.