One summer, I jumped on an opportunity to move to a specific area where I’d live and work for three to four months. Nobody knew me, which meant I could focus on my tasks with minimal distractions. Soon, I found myself working day and night. I lacked a solid social structure (and familial oversight).
Why not work seven days a week? I thought. So I did.
Despite putting in more hours, I wasn’t getting more done or doing my existing work more effectively. Life was one big blur, with tasks expanding to fill the time. What did I even accomplish today? I wondered. According to a study from researchers at Stanford University, productivity drops significantly after 55 hours—and I was far exceeding that.
I know I’m not alone in this experience. Our society is steeped in hustle culture. We applaud those who “rise and grind” — the ones who work 40-plus hours a week, never take any paid time off, and exist on coffee and (vomit) energy drinks. In some workplaces, putting in 70 hours a week is more likely to earn you bragging rights than a concerned call from your manager.
The pandemic only exacerbated our workaholic tendencies. Many of us got used to working from the comfort of our living rooms, causing work and home lives to blur. Almost one-third of remote workers say they work more hours than they did before COVID-19. We’re now seeing the long-term effects of this: 52% of workers are burned out, and 67% believe the pandemic intensified their burnout. People are quitting their jobs in droves to escape the suffocating pressure of the workplace.
Thankfully, you don’t have to reach a breaking point to make a change. You can start setting better boundaries today and get more satisfaction out of your job.
Why We Overwork
It’s important to ask ourselves what we’re actually trying to achieve by burning ourselves to the ground. Like so many others, I worked a grueling number of hours because of a deep-seated need to prove myself. I wanted to be noticed by higher-ups. I wanted my name on sales reports. I was driven by competition. Time and again, we’ve seen how the weight of expectations can impact people’s mental health.
For example, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open this past May, citing mental health concerns. Similarly, Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time, recently withdrew from the team finals at the Tokyo Olympics after the pressure to perform became too much to bear. Although many applauded the women for their vulnerability and bravery, others argued they had a duty to fulfill.
Too many of us subscribe to this kind of thinking. We get stuck in cycles of, do this, so I can have this, so I can be this. Individuals such as Osaka and Biles are changing the narrative around work, showing others that they don’t have to engage in the hamster wheel of do-have-be—they can simply be.
Companies like Kickstarter are also noticing the toll that overworking takes on employees’ mental health. Recently, CEO Aziz Hasan implemented a four-day workweek to combat rampant employee burnout. Research supports the idea: A study that ran from 2015 to 2019 in Iceland found that employee productivity remained the same or improved in most workplaces that tested a four-day workweek. Another study found that we are happier and more productive when we work less than 40 hours per week.
4 Steps to Setting Better Boundaries
Regardless of your weekly schedule, it’s a good idea to establish boundaries as early as possible to protect your time and mental health. Here are four steps to get started:
1. Start with ‘sure.’
Your boss flags you down and asks you to take on a new project that you really don’t want. (Note: I’ve been this boss frequently. Sorry, team.) It’s tempting to flatly refuse in the name of setting boundaries, but hear me out: That’s just insubordination, and it might be interpreted as laziness.
A better strategy is to start with a level of compliance. Compliance makes you powerful. When you agree to a task or project, you communicate willingness and flexibility. It’s also a chance to show your boss that you’re engaged in your job. Put yourself in her shoes: Who would you rather have on your team?
2. Fill in the details.
Once you’ve agreed to the request, it’s time to make sure your boss understands the full scope of what’s expected of you. These are the boundaries you’ll set. It’s easy to villainize authority figures and assume they’re assigning you their own undesired tasks. In reality, most bosses (myself included) lack a true understanding of the details and nuances of the tasks they’re delegating. One of the best communication tactics you can use here is managing up. Detail as many bullets as possible as you outline the requirements of the project.
3. Fight the problem, not the person.
As you outline the project’s requirements and your supervisor’s expectations, focus on fighting the problem instead of the person. Bring solutions to the table and ask for feedback. For example, could some of your other work be outsourced to free up your availability? Could you use software to automate a portion of the process?
Create a scenario where you and your boss make decisions together—on this project and future ones. When I was a young manager, I used to start with the decision point and sell it to my direct reports from there.
But good relationships aren’t built on sales pitches; people need context. Now, my direct reports keep a “Mike List.” When we meet one-on-one, we go through each item on the Mike List and share any necessary context before reaching a decision point. Thank you to all of my reports who’ve stuck with me through my own buffoonery/professional development.
4. Communicate your availability.
No reasonable person expects you to do it all. However, you need to raise your hand and communicate. It might be as simple saying, “I can do that. Here’s what it will involve. Is there a better solution based on my availability? If I do this, what else can be taken off my plate?”
If your boss asks for a delivery timeline that you know you can’t meet, be upfront. For instance, I was once on a big production film set and had to do a ton of post-production editing. When I told my boss our team’s target deadline, he asked if we could deliver sooner. In response, I started going through the requirements: “Here are the steps to make sure rack focus shots don’t have chroma key, and here’s something else we’re doing that’s saving us time. Despite this, we’re still going to be 10 days later than we’d like.”
Because I was detailed about the project’s needs and why each step required a certain amount of time, my boss understood and moved the deadline back.
At the beginning of your career, it can feel like you have to work yourself to the bone to prove your value. But it’s not worth it, and it’s definitely not sustainable. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself burned out and psychologically drained. Instead of grinding yourself into the ground, communicate with your boss, express your needs and availability, and start problem-solving together.
Photo by @alfianfirmana/Twenty20