Web work can be insidious. With laptop, cel phone, Blackberry, the web, and the rest of our digital lifestyle, we can work anywhere. For many people, that translates to working any time. And then, by degrees so gradually that you hardly notice it, “any time” becomes “every time” and web work takes over your life. You find yourself rolling out of bed at 6 in the morning to check your e-mail and still answering messages at 2 the next morning on your cel phone, just because you can.
While some people thrive on this lifestyle, others prefer a bit more balance. When you have a family, finding that balance between work and life can be critically important. If you’re caught up in the web work rat race and don’t know where to begin looking for balance, here are some ideas:
1. Set office hours for yourself. If you were going into the office, no one would expect you to be there at 11PM (well, not at most companies) – so why should you encourage your co-workers to expect you to be working at 11PM just because you work at home? Decide what your working hours are and stick to them. Stop checking e-mail, turn off the instant messenger, and don’t answer the separate business phone line after, say, 6PM. If someone from the company has to be available to handle emergencies, work with your management to set up a fair rotation so everyone swaps around the pager for this, not just you.
2. Keep your co-workers informed. It’s easy to turn into the office George (“just let George do it”) when you’re not on site. If people can’t easily see what you’re doing, the tendency is to heap more work on your plate, especially if you’re the only web worker on an otherwise physical team. To combat this tendency, make sure the rest of the team knows what you’re up to. Keep your calendar and task list visible using web- or network-based tools. Send out e-mail progress reports. Show up for those weekly conference calls, no matter how annoying they are.
3. Learn to say no. Many web workers have an entrepreneurial bent, and remember some lean months when the only food in the kitchen was a half-empty jar of peanut butter. If you’ve got a full pantry now, perhaps you don’t have to grab for every job that comes your way any longer? Freelancers need to learn to suppress the automatic “yes” that comes out for every potential client, and instead evaluate jobs strategically. Does this work fit into your schedule? Is the rate reasonable? Is it something you should pass off to a colleague who might be less busy than you are right now, or more suited for this particular job?
4. Pursue your other passions. You’ve probably heard this before, but: most people aren’t going to look back on their deathbeds and wish they had spent more time at work. Take time out to apply some of your energy to your other passions, whatever they may be. Hiking, stamp collecting, writing, raising chinchillas, knitting – make the time to follow your interests and enjoy yourself. You’re likely to find that people treat you as a more interesting person if you can talk about something other than your work, too. If you’re a high-intensity person who is driven to succeed, you don’t have to change that; just let yourself apply those traits outside your work as well as within it.
5. Think about your life goals. Whether you do it with a newfangled web interface like 43 Things or an old-fashioned paper journal, take some time to ask yourself what’s important in your life. Are you working 24/7 just because it’s the easy default thing to do with your life? If you are, it might be time to take a long weekend at the beach or in the mountains (without that Blackberry!) and just think about what you really want to do. Sometimes this sort of mini-vacation is all you need to get yourself to back off from a life of nothing-but-work.
Is it possible to be a web worker and still draw reasonable boundaries? Do you have your own strategies for keeping work from taking over your life?