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Better Boundaries and Being Present: How to Set Boundaries and Be More Present During Your Downtime

February 28, 2022

Reading Time: 13 minutes

How to Be More Present When You’re Off the Clock with a Shutdown Routine

Living in a world of 24/7 access with notifications, emails and messages coming our way at all hours of the day, it can be so hard to turn off work and actually be present during our downtime. Either we’re responding to messages, getting distracted by emails or we’re worrying about what’s left and what we’ve got to do tomorrow.

Episode 114 is all about your off hours. The time you’re NOT spending on the clock. Your evenings, your weekends. Pretty much the times of day when you’re hoping to be in family mode, or friends mode. But definitely not work mode.

A lot of the time when we think about time management, we tend to focus on how we’re spending our time at work. How we can get more done in less time? How we can time block or task batch our way to an empty to-do list at the end of the day? Time management doesn’t stop when the clock strikes 5, or whenever it is that you consider yourself done for the day.

It’s easy to slip into default distraction mode.

If we don’t watch out, it’s easy to move from work mode to our off hours without actually turning off all of the work thoughts running through our heads. That can cause us to feel distracted. It can make us want to check in on our phones constantly to make sure we’re not missing something. And it can lead to long hours of working, because you never officially created a stopping point for your day. This can harm relationships and affect your overall health and wellbeing.

In order to tend to our relationships, we’ve got to be present. We give our attention to what we care about. When our attention is divided between work and the ones we love… we’re not really caring for either with our whole selves. 

So in today’s episode, I’m diving into

  • How you can be more present during your downtime
  • What it really looks like to set boundaries between work and your personal time
  • A simple routine you can use at the end of each day to shift your mindset
  • And how to know when you’ve got to cut your losses and just get a new job already

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted.

That basically means that if we give ourselves an hour to do something, and we seriously HAVE to finish it within an hour, that we’ll find a way to use the whole hour.

Parkinson’s Law is why so many of us say that we work well under pressure. We know there’s a deadline coming, which means we’ve got a limited amount of time to get something done. So we pull out all the stop and get it done.

When we’ve got all the time in the world and the deadline seems far away, we’ll buckle down and make it happen.

Without boundaries, work keeps expanding

So if work expands to fill the time allotted, but there is no end point in sight. There’s no stop time, no boundary, no clear deadline – that means that work expands… and expands… and expands….. 

It creeps into our thoughts when we’re having dinner. Maybe we check email constantly. We worry about the status of projects or we sneak back over to the laptop to finish something up. Or maybe we just sit with the laptop in front of the tv. We try to split our attention between Netflix and the project on our screen, scrolling our phone every few minutes for good measure. But we’re not really focusing on anything.

After a while, it can start to feel like we’re working all the time and that our work/life balance is OFF balance, even though we’re not exactly getting MORE done for work. We feel like we’re working all the time. But there’s still always work to be done. It feels confusing and frustrating.

So how can we flip the switch and start feeling more present during our downtime, and less distracted by everything waiting for us when we get back to our laptops?

Three Ways to feel more present during your downtime

Here are three ways that you can feel more present during your downtime: setting clear boundaries, using a shut down routine, and finding a new job. Yes. I know that third on is a little dramatic. Difficult times call for difficult measures and I’ll explain why this is something to consider later in the episode.

01. Set Clear Boundaries

First – setting clear boundaries.

I hear so often from time management coaching clients that “I just need better boundaries.”

It’s something that’s really easy to say. But what does it mean to have “better boundaries?” 

You can physically draw a line in the sand. You can see the boundary of a city, or a state or a country on a map. But what does having “better boundaries” actually look like in real life?

When things are invisible and unclear, it’s impossible to stick to them. 

If you feel like you don’t have clear boundaries, you might have fallen into the same conundrum experienced by many professionals these days – you’ve let someone else set your boundaries for you. I’m going to use work as an example, but the same thing can be applied to family relationships and volunteer commitments. 

When you let your work set your boundaries for you – you’re letting someone else decide when you’re available and how you’ll respond. 

And this someone else could be your boss, or it could be your clients who are running the show. 

And it’s not surprising that this would happen to many of us. It’s the way we were raised.

It all started with school schedules.

Think back to when we were in middle school and high school. Boundaries were set for us. We were given a schedule and told where to be and when. After school activities set our evening schedules, and we honestly didn’t have to think all that much about the flow of our days. We just showed up. First we went to english, then chemistry, and so on. 

Now that we’re adults and we have control over how we spend our time, so many of us are still living in that default high school mode of just doing what you’re told without asking questions. 

Following a schedule set for you by someone else instead of stopping to ask yourself what you really want and how you want to spend your time. And then after we let someone else – our workplace, our boss, whatever –  make the rules for us, we get frustrated when they overstep or push too far or they ask for something we’re not comfortable with. 

I’m certainly not suggesting that your boss or your clients are just waiting to walk all over you and take advantage of your time. But if you let someone else into the driver’s seat of your life, don’t be surprised when you don’t like the direction your time is taking. 

How to redefine your boundaries

So if you feel like you’ve let someone else set your  boundaries and its affecting how you show up outside of work hours, here’s what you can do:

First – you’ve got to make some decisions. And I get it, making decisions can be really hard. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so easy to fall into letting someone else make them for us. 

Ask yourself: What am I willing to do for work when my work hours end? And on the flip side what am I not willing to do? 

Are you willing to check email one last time at 8PM just in case? Are you willing to answer work calls? Are you willing to respond to messages for some priority clients?

Are you not willing to cancel dinner plans to work on something for a client? Are you not willing to miss bathtime and bedtime stories for your kids to jump on a call with your boss?

What’s on the table and what’s off limits.

Put those decisions into words. Write them down on a piece of paper or type them up in a google doc. When you get them out of your head and articulate them, this makes them feel more real. Again – it’s hard to stick to boundaries when you can’t see them like a line in the sand.

Now that you’ve articulated what you’re willing to do, and what you’re not willing to do – what do you need to communicate or get set up in order to stick to those boundaries?

Do you need to communicate with your boss, your team, or your assistant that you will not be responding to emails between the hours of 6PM and 9AM? 

Do you need to communicate with your clients that while they are welcome to message you at anytime convenient for them, that you will respond during your business hours which are between the hours of 9 and 5 Monday through Friday?

Are there any automations you need to set up, or programs you need to invest in to make sticking to these boundaries easier?

Automate your workflows

For example, I use a program called Dubsado to help manage inquiries from potential new clients. After they enter their information using a form on my website, they automatically receive a message letting them know I’ve received their message and when they can expect to receive a response from me. 

They have the confirmation that I’ve received their message, which they can send at anytime and I don’t have to lift or a finger or spend additional time in my inbox.

Do you need to set up an email autoresponder that sets expectations for when people can expect to hear from you? Email responders aren’t just for vacations and out of office messages. So many of the most successful business owners I know keep an autoresponder up all the time so they’re consistently setting expectations for those who reach out.

Finally – once your boundaries are articulated, communicated with others, and you’ve got the technology you need in place to help you stick to them – you’ve got to add your boundary to your calendar. Again – we want to make your boundaries visible. Consider adding a recurring time block in your calendar with your Quitting Time each day. When you can clearly see this end point, Parkinson’s Law goes into effect and you’ve got a clearly visible end point so work can stop expanding. 

01. Set up a Shutdown Routine

Alright – the second strategy for being more present during your downtime:

Set up a Shutdown routine. 

Once you know your boundaries, you can create a successful shutdown routine. A shutdown routine is one of the 5 essential routines that help you show up as your best self. 

The 5 Essential Routines

Those 5 essential routines are your morning routine which helps you transition from sleep to getting your day going. An evening routine which helps you wind down for a good night’s sleep. A weekly planning session that gives you a bird’s eye view of your week ahead so you can win your week before it starts. Your workday startup routine, which helps you transition into the workday, and finally your shutdown routine – which helps you wind down the work day and transition from being in work mode to being in not work mode.

Listen Now: Episode 17 — The 5 Must-Have Routines You Need in Your Life Right Now

I love giving the example of Mr. Rogers. Remember at the beginning of every episode of Mr. Rogers neighborhood, he’d walk into his house and get settled in. He’d take off his outside jacket and put on his cardigan. He’d take off his outside shoes and put on his inside shoes. He was doing a physical routine that resulted in a mental mindset shift. He was shifting from outside mode to inside mode – being at home. 

Your shutdown routine isn’t meant to be something long and complicated. It’s a few steps that help you bring yourself in for a landing and turn off your workbrain for the rest of the evening. 

If you’ve ever been frustrated with yourself for being constantly distracted with thoughts of what’s left on your to-do list and what you need to do tomorrow, you’re going to be happy to know that you’re not alone. 

What’s the Zeigarnik Effect?

And It helps to know about the Zeigarnik effect. 

The Zeigarnik effect was discovered by a psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik. Basically, she discovered that our brains don’t really worry about things that we’ve finished. Things we’ve marked off of our to-do list. We’re done with them, and our brain just kind of moves on.

Seems like a no-brainer. Pun intended.

But she also discovered that our brain continues to focus on unfinished tasks, interrupting our thoughts to remind us that they’re unfinished. Which is super annoying, why we worry, and why we can’t help but think about ongoing work things when we’re supposed to be spending quality time with our family or just relaxing.

Open Loops and Closed Loops

These unfinished tasks, the stuff that’s left on our to-do list or bouncing around in our heads as being “undone” are often called “open loops.” And we keep cycling through these open loops until we close them.

Well – a shut down routine helps you close the loops – without finishing the whole project – so you can focus on other things without cycling through all the things in your head.

The Invisible Load

We hear a lot about the mental load, the invisible load, or emotional labor that many women and moms carry. Part of what makes that mental load so difficult is that our thoughts are constantly bombarded with things that are unfinished.

While I could and should do a separate episode just on the mental load, we’re going to zero in on work tasks specifically. 

With an effective shut down routine, at least one of the steps should include reviewing your to-do list and noting the status of outstanding projects. Then you decide what you’ll do tomorrow – or Monday, if it’s a Friday. 

This signals to your brain that you’ve reached a stopping point. It closes the open loop. Tells yourself that you’re done. So you’re able to shift your mindset to non work things without those open loops constantly popping up and distracting you.

How Alissa Jenkins of Hustle Humbly closes her loops.

Here’s an example that Alissa Jenkins of the podcast Hustle Humbly shared with me recently. Alissa’s a realtor – but not just any realtor, she’s a very successful, high volume realtor who is managing a large portfolio of clients at any given moment.

Realtors are notorious for struggling with boundaries and the need to be on call at all times – especially during the crazy real estate market we’ve experienced these last few years. 

Here’s what Alissa does to be firm with her boundaries and be present with her family. Whenever she pulls into the parking lot at daycare, she opens up her email and responds to every single outstanding email with something like “Hey there, I got your message. I’ll send you that first thing tomorrow.” Or “Hey there, I’d love to be your realtor. I’ll send more information on how we can get started first thing tomorrow.”

She’s closing the loops and setting expectations. Then, she’s shifting her mindset to time with her family. Is every house sold? No. Is every buyer under contract? Also no. 

Do emergencies occasionally pop up that have to be attended to? Sure. But by being proactive and setting expectations, those emergencies are few and far between.

This won’t work for me.

So at this point you might be thinking, Anna this would never work for me. 

My boss expects me to be available 24/7. If I don’t drop everything and respond I risk losing my job. I work in an industry that requires me to always be available.

I would first ask this – does your boss really expect you to be available 24/7, or are you afraid to set and communicate boundaries? 

Let me tell you about Samantha.

One of my former time management coaching clients, we’ll call her Samantha – Samanda was VP at a consulting company – and she came to me feeling burned out and ready to quit her job. She was frustrated because her boss needed her to be available 24/7. She was always working and felt like she never got a break.

But what Samantha slowly began to realize as we started digging in was that her boss actually didn’t have any expectations that she be available 24/7. Her boss didn’t need to know when she was working and where. Her boss didn’t even expect her to respond to emails immediately. 

Instead, she realized she was placing all of those expectations on herself. And when she defined her own boundaries and stuck to them, the burnout disappeared and she has completely flourished in her role.

No really. This WON’T work for me.

But if you’re thinking – no Anna. My boss really expects me to be available all the time. My industry is always on.

Trust me. I know exactly how that feels. I spent a decade in the 24/7 work of crisis communication and government affairs. 

Sleep under your desk, Anna.

Once, I got sick while my boss was working on a presentation. Fever, chills. The whole nine yards.  He’d said earlier in the week that he might need my help, but as the days passed, he never asked for anything. So when I let him know that I was sick and needed to home, he looked up from his desk and said fine. Go.

I went home and went straight to bed.

When I returned to work, he yelled at me to come to his office. He told me that moving forward, his expectation was that I sleep under my desk if I’m sick in case he needs me. And that he did, in fact, need my help while I was out sick. 

Seriously. That actually happened. He decided he didn’t need my help until I was gone, and then told me to sleep under my desk moving forward. 

Answer within 5 minutes, or ELSE, Anna.

I had another boss who explained on day one. If I send you an email, I expect a response of some sort – even just an acknowledgement within 5 minutes. If I call you, you better answer. 

Was I always on edge when I worked for that boss? Yes. Did I take super short showers for fear of needing to answer the phone mid-shampoo? Also yes. 

Those are two very clear situations where communicating my boundaries with my bosses were not an option if I wanted to keep my job.

So – that’s when you have to consider option 3.

03. Find a New Job

Find a new job. Find a new industry if you have to.

You might have a bad boss. You might be in a toxic work environment. You might be in an industry that was a great fit for you earlier in your career, but no longer supports the life you want to have.

Maybe the long hours of event planning or public relations or wedding photography whatever else was fine when you were younger, but now that you have a family you’re feeling torn. 

Maybe your goals and aspirations have changed so you’re not willing to give your all to your current role.

Before you quite your job, do this:

Whatever your situation, before you turn in your 2 weeks notes, go back to step one. Articulate your values. Set expectations. See what happens. You might find that – like Samantha – you’re putting expectations on yourself to be available all the time. But you might find that your employer actually really likes taking advantage of you and that you having boundaries doesn’t work for them.

That’s what I found at my last full time job before I started my business. After my boss expressed that I should be arriving to work at 6AM to get a head start on the day like she did when she was in the role, I knew that we had conflicting values.

After several weeks of working long days and staffing events with no overtime, I defined and articulated my boundaries, met with my boss and the director to communicate them and share potential solutions. One of those solutions included submitting my resignation so they could find someone else who would be willing to step into the role, and that was the solution they chose. 

I wished them the best and now I’m here. 

What to do before you quit your job

If you’re thinking about leaving your current job in search of something that fits the life you want to live – I encourage you to first get clear about what exactly that life looks like. Do you want to work remotely? Do you want the camaraderie of an office environment? What are your core values, and how will you know when you’ve found the right role?

And thinking practically, how can you make ends meet if there’s a gap between your current job and your new job. Consider building a savings if you don’t already have one so you have cushion and peace of mind. 

Yes. It IS possible

Yes – it is possible to be more present and turn off work-brain when you’re not working. It starts with setting clear boundaries and articulating them. Then having a daily shutdown routine helps you close the open loops so you’re not constantly thinking about what still needs to be done. And finally – if you’ve tried steps 1 and 2, and your attempt to hold firm to your boundaries is being walked all over by your employer or your clients, it might be time to find a new job. 

Links & Resources Mentioned in Episode 114

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