5 Boundary-Setting Tips for the Work Obsessed


[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Anne Zelenka, who serves as Editor at Large for Web Worker Daily.]

If you are so passionate about your work that you border on obsessed, you might find it near impossible to turn work off.

This is especially so in the web age, when you can stay connected no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re doing. What do you do when suggestions like “work only during certain hours” and “don’t check email on evenings and weekends” just don’t seem to be enough?

Here are five more powerful tricks for keeping work in its place…

1. Choose flow-inducing hobbies that really engage you and pull your mind away from work.

Flow is a sense of effortless engagement in what you’re doing. You’ll find it in activities that have clear objectives and challenge you just a bit beyond your current level of skill. What kind of hobbies can produce flow? Sports like skiing or martial arts, art like painting or pottery, games like poker or bridge, and puzzles like crosswords or sudoku are a few examples. Such activities will lure you away from work because, unlike passive activities like watching TV, they can provide the same sense of engagement and challenge that your work life offers.

2. Set goals in your personal life just like you do in your professional life.

Working towards goals is a sure way of getting yourself excited enough about non-work activities that you can pull yourself away work. This tip works in tandem with the first, because goal-oriented activities are more likely to provide a sense of flow than activities taken on for simple recreation and relaxation. Tim Ferriss describes a process he calls “dreamlining” [sample worksheets and excel tools here] for applying timelines to your life goals and dreams — that’s a great way to make your personal goals just as actionable as your work projects.

3. Schedule dates with other people for non-work activities.

For example, schedule a workout session with a personal trainer, arrange to meet a friend for happy hour after work, or make weekend plans with your friends or family to go hiking. Solo plans are easier to break in favor of work; if you have a commitment to another person you’ll be more likely to shut the laptop and mobile phone off.

4. Use tech boundaries to separate your work and your life.

Think about whether you need to create different computer, email, and instant messaging accounts for personal versus professional activities. If you have access to all your work tools when you log in to upload vacation photos or video chat with a friend, you’re likely to get drawn into work email and work tasks even when you intend otherwise. If you show up as available on your work instant messaging account on a Saturday, a colleague might ask you a quick question that leads to a long discussion that consumes your weekend.

5. Decide your “no”s in advance.

Follow Tim’s advice and use the 80/20 rule to figure out which types of activities in your work life just aren’t worth the time you put in. This might be meeting people for lunch, attending conferences requiring plane travel and overnight stays, or taking extra projects on weekends. Whatever your low-value activities are, make a rule up front to say “no” instead of deciding on a case-by-case basis. If you can rule out entire classes of relatively unproductive business activities like this, you’ll leave more room for your personal life and boost your professional effectiveness at the same time.

Anne’s new book, Connect! A Guide to a New Way of Working from GigaOM’s Web Worker Daily, with Judi Sohn, offers practical tips and inspiration for anyone who wants to use the web for work success and satisfaction.

Related links:

The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen (Plus: Weapons of Mass Distraction)

E-mail-Free Fridays and How to Save Your Weekend

Chapter 5 – The End of Time Management: Illusions and Italians

Posted on: January 16, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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54 comments on “5 Boundary-Setting Tips for the Work Obsessed

  1. Great tips! “Flow-inducing hobbies” are a great idea. I took last Friday off to go skiing and didn’t miss work one bit. It required my full mental/physical concentration, so thinking about work wasn’t even an option. :)


  2. Hmm, fewer posts, keep them purer… otherwise this blog will just blend into the rest of the new self-help genre: an endless list of numbered bullet-point articles of mini rules to follow.

    Quality is working just fine, no need for quantity (and that’s not a slight to Web Worker Daily; I RSS subscribe to that, but that’s not why I RSS subscribe to this… ).

    Is that fair?


  3. Great post. Suggestions 1 and 2 definitely ring true for me. I love what I do for work so it’s really easy for it to consume my free time. I combat this in two ways:

    1. I play and watch a lot of hockey. I absolutely love it and it’s nearly impossible to think about work during.

    2. I started treating my free time as a job. Mainly, this means I schedule fun activities and stick to them. Small things like setting reminders to contact friends or to plan the week’s fun activities in advance go a long way. I also research and plan “fun-time” with the same gusto as work projects.

    The latter really forces me to focus on how I want to spend my time and gets me to make it happen.


  4. Great people look at all parts of their life and learn to balance all of them to create a harmonious existence.

    Which is probably the most difficult thing for most of us to do because our emotions sway us to and fro, but when we can put flow into all parts of our life we are heading in the right direction.

    Tim, you have a very creative mind! Keep it up.


  5. Internal martial arts, like Tai Chi, are great for bringing your attention to the present, and away from work. Any kind of moving meditation is good as it engages you both physically and mentally. It also leaves you feeling relaxed, focused, and energized.

    Try taking breaks during your work day to do something like this and you’ll find that when you go back to your work you not only feel better, you’re more productive. This is especially good if you tend to drink a lot of coffee, or if you tend to multitask too much and feel scattered a lot.


  6. Talk about timing. I’m sitting here at 11PM EST after working my full-time gig all day, running my muse in between meetings, and coming home to mountains of paperwork. Not for long.

    Thankfully, my muse has been so successful I’m quitting my (extremely lucrative) job in three weeks and, assuming the paperwork I’ve been working on all night every night for the past several weeks goes through, I’ll be riding my muse at full-speed and start really laying in the Work/Life boundaries!

    Thanks Tim, your book can be credited 100% with me getting my muse launched. My product and website was featured on TV within three days of launching! Unfortunately I missed your request for 4HWW success stories, but let me know if you want more details, I’d love to share them with you.



  7. These are some great tips. If anything, having other things in your life is best. Hobbies, friends, girlfriend (or boyfriend), charity, etc. Just having some other obligation that you are happy to fulfill is the best way to break away when needed.


  8. #2 is my favorite. I consider myself as a pipeline that processes external events – work, personal, social. I am only one, the events are enormous. If I give priority to one the other hurts since I am only one and I can process things one thing a time. That is why #2 resonates with me so much. Not setting priorities and goals with personal life will allow other events to fill the pipeline without a chance for personal things get handled.


  9. Great post, I see a lot of people that think that they don’t have time for a personal life or hobbies, but they only need to reprioritize and structure their life a little bit. I for myself am going to trek in India now, great stress relief =).


  10. Volunteering is great for scheduling time away from work (and some companies let you do this during office hours) as well as a good avenue for meeting people and getting inspired. If you truly have trouble finding things to look forward to outside of work, find a cause you can care about and help out in some way.

    If you can’t find a cause you care about at all – you’re probably comatose.


  11. Good stuff here. I especially resonate with #2 and #3; am about to sign up for a triathlon for June which will stretch me but put a nice marker down. Whenever I do schedule “dates” with others it pays off in manner you describe, ie provides a governor to work (or in my case full-time grad school)


  12. are there really that many workaholics these days with the advent of the computer and the internet? I dunno. I’m more likely to sit and play solitaire or browse websites like this while i should be working.

    Maybe a 5 tips for ways to concentrate at work will be more appropriate for our generation. :)


  13. Interesting Blog! It has definitely been a great experience for me to do martial arts to help relieve stress. I might mention too, that yoga also helps.




  14. Great post. What happens, however, when your work and hobby have crossover? For instance, I run a vintage clothing company, and it’s my true passion. I can’t ever seem to turn off because I truly am obsessed with what I do. It’s killing my personal relationships! I haven’t read Ferris’ book yet, but I’m hoping it will answer some of these question.


  15. Great post. What happens, however, when your work and hobby have crossover? For instance, I run a vintage clothing company, and it’s my true passion. I can’t ever seem to turn off because I truly am obsessed with what I do. It’s killing my personal relationships! I haven’t read Ferris’ book yet, but I’m hoping it will answer some of these question.