4 Simple strategies to keep work from eating into your personal time.

4 Simple strategies to keep work from eating into your personal time by Cathy Jacob at CathyJacob.com

If your work life feels like it’s swallowing up your personal time, you are experiencing work creep. Work creep is when work slowly eats into your life and working long hours become the norm.

In my last post, I talked about the causes of work creep, how it can erode your health and hurt your productivity and performance.

Here are 4 simple strategies to help you reduce work creep and the stress, overwhelm and anxiety that go with it.

1. Start with where you have the most control.

One of my favorite questions when I find myself stuck in a situation I don’t want, is “What am I doing to perpetuate the very thing I most want to change?”

Typically, we don’t work in the evenings and weekends because we want to or because it gives us pleasure. We do it because we believe we have no choice. We feel it’s the only way for us to meet the many demands and expectations placed on us.

But to flourish, work creep needs our support and acquiescence. And in some cases, the expectations we are responding to are our own. It’s a dance between expectations and our efforts to meet them.

Like any dance, if one party stops dancing, the rhythm of the dance is broken. When you can see your part in the dance, you can change the dance. You can begin to shift the dynamic that has you working more than is healthy and start to break the work creep cycle.

That said, I want to be clear about one thing. This is not about blaming yourself for your own suffering. Nor is it to excuse organizations and bosses who expect more than is reasonable. This is not another reason to beat yourself up. This is about putting yourself back in the driver’s seat.

By becoming aware of the ways in which you contribute to work creep, you can begin the process of reducing or eliminating it.

2. Check your assumptions.

In part 1 of this series, I explored five faulty assumptions that can accompany work creep. Get curious about the way you see your situation and the things you believe to be true about it. Ask yourself, is that true? Or is that an assumption that I need to test? For example, your boss sends you a text message at 6 p.m. with a question that is going to take a couple of hours of work.  Is it true that she expects you to drop everything and respond right away? Or is she just getting something off her own list by delegating it to you? 

If it’s unclear, it’s a good idea to ask in a way that gets the clarity you need while tactfully letting her know she is infringing on family time. Something like, “Having dinner with the kids right now. Okay if I get back to you tomorrow morning?”

3. Recognize and treat work creep like a habit you want to break.

Work creep is a habit, either a habit created by you, or one you have adopted to cope with habitual behaviors in your organization that contribute to it. When you can see it that way, it becomes more like eating too much junk food and strategies for breaking any unhealthy habit apply.

Create conditions that make it difficult, inconvenient, or unsatisfying to either keep working or return to work after dinner or on the weekend.

Pick a time to end your day and shut down your computer completely. Put all work-related devices and files out of site. Don’t bring your phone to the dinner table or to your bedside table and turn off all notifications in the evenings.

Reframe working late in your mind from “something that will help me catch up” to “something that will interfere with the rest I need to be productive tomorrow.”

For a simple step-by-step process for breaking bad habits and establishing good ones, I recommend James Clear’s, Atomic Habits.

4. Stop Working!

I know, duh.

And yet, how many times have you gone to bed with email programs still open and your computer running? How many times have you grabbed your dinner and brought it back to your desk? Part of the reason you never feel done may be that you don’t really finish.

One of the most powerful practices I’ve discovered for reducing work creep is the end of day ritual. This is about calling an end to your workday and going through a form of shut down sequence.  Commit to a “time of done.” 

To reduce work creep, make “done” a time of day versus “when I finish my to do list”. This may fly in the face of everything you’ve learned about being a committed, reliable, top performer, but stay with me. This practice, over time, should actually improve your performance.

Adopting an end of workday ritual was the toughest and most transformative thing I did to eliminate work creep from my life. In fact, it was so transformative that I’ve created a companion post, called The Shut Down Sequence.

If you want to improve your productivity, reclaim your evenings and weekends, check it out.

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Cathy Jacob

I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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