Cutting the Cord: Leave Work at Work

Dec 03, 2023
man finishing up work and shutting down

Ah, leaving work at work. Sounds great when you say it, but it’s a whole lot harder in practice, amirite?

Many professionals struggle to unplug after work hours and are constantly either on-call, (officially and unofficially) or neck-deep in too many tasks to get done.

This problem exists in many professions. And, it’s almost always a thing for knowledge workers and those working in difficult, high-stress sectors.

People like nurses and teachers have a huge burden on their shoulders, one that they carry constantly, not just during work hours.

Same goes for people working in marketing, technology, and other tech fields - only in their case, they often feel added pressure to take their laptops home and keep working for hours in the evening.

Oh and executives? Their job may sound cushy, but your senior leaders and the C-Suite have all the same problems, plus they have to respond if something goes so wrong that their company can end up on the front page of the newspaper.

This lack of separation can be compounded by working from home - it’s just harder and harder to remember what is work and what is not when you are absorbed in a demanding job that you don’t have to commute to.

In this post, I’m sharing tips on how to leave work at the workplace and achieve a satisfactory work-life balance without affecting your performance.

What do we mean by cutting the cord?

When I talk about “the cord” I’m referring to the constant connection between you and your career.

When you’re always available to respond to an email, answer a call, or take on an extra task, the lines between work and life become increasingly blurred.

This is also true in less concrete ways. For example, in many careers, you mentally take work home with you, even if you aren’t officially working. You could be mulling over a problem to solve, ruminating on an upcoming meeting, or unable to stop thinking about conflict with a student, patient, or colleague.

If you’re always on, you become your job, with no real separation between work and life.

Your phone, computer, and other devices are huge offenders in this negative work-life balance, though they’re not in charge of maintaining it. That responsibility falls on your shoulders.

8 Tips on Cutting the Cord for an Improved Work-Life Balance

If you’re ready to cut the cord and achieve a better work-life balance, there are several concrete steps that you can take.

In this situation, you have all the power to make impactful, lasting changes. Here’s how to start:

1. Remember that you are entitled to a personal life.

If I could give only one piece of advice for cutting the cord, it would be this: Stop feeling like you have to justify having a life.

This is particularly important for single professionals or professionals without kids to recognize. Often, these folks are pushed to work harder and take on projects because their home life is perceived as less important than people with kids or a significant other at home.

Recognize that no matter your job or home situation, you are entitled to have time off for yourself, your friends, family, hobbies, relaxation, and whatever else you’d like to spend your time on!

Constant productivity is not necessary to get ahead and it’s definitely not a healthy choice for your well-being. This is particularly true for people doing knowledge work. Creativity can only happen when you have margin - and working all the damned time saps all of your margin.

This can be a hard lesson to learn, particularly when beginning your career. Remind yourself of this concept and remember that “No,” and “I’m not available,” are complete sentences.

2. Determine your ideal work-life balance

The best way to cut the cord and move towards your ideal work-life balance is to first identify what that looks like for you!

Decide on what your ideal situation is for your work. Ask yourself what you want your evenings, weekends, holidays, and vacations to look like.

Also ask yourself how much you want to work, think about work, and hear from work when you are not at work.

These answers will form your ideal work situation – one that you should be able to achieve.

 3. Identify the gaps and modify

Once you know what your ideal work situation looks like, identify the gaps between it and your current reality. Then, modify it to fit your ideal!

Personally, I’ve never minded working a couple of hours on admin through the weekend while I’m doing a simple chore like laundry. But if I start doing full days of work on the weekend, this is bad news for me and far from my ideal.

This has become so important to me that even now, when I work for myself, I track how many days I work each month and pay particular attention to unplanned weekend work.

Once you’ve assessed your gaps, pick a couple of tactics and start making them your reality. You may have to experiment a little bit to get the balance you seek, but don’t give up.

And as a general rule, don’t feel like you always need to ask for permission to try things; this is your work-life balance and it’s your job to maintain it.

4. Communicate your expectations

As much as possible, remember to clearly communicate your expectations with your team. Some are so afraid of taking time off that they communicate about their needs far too late.

Be upfront about vacation days needed, mark yourself as “out of office”, and give people as much notice as possible for what’s coming up.

One thing I used to do when I worked a corporate job is be very clear with my boss and closest colleagues about exactly what my availability would be while I was taking a PTO day.

If I just wanted to take a day to catch up on a few things around the house, I might be willing to check my email once or twice to make sure nothing was on fire.

Traveling to see family though? That was a whole different story. I made it a practice to declare “Diana is CLOSED” for my most important days off.

If your company culture is solid, making these clear communications won’t cause any stir in the work environment. If they do, this could indicate to you that it’s time to find someplace to work that will actually respect you.

5. Set healthy habits

It’s easy to slip into unhealthy work habits, particularly when you work from home. I follow some strict remote work tips in order to create a separation between work and life.

At one company, I used to get requests for meetings after 4:30pm a lot. I started marking my calendar as “out of the office” from 4:30-6pm several days a week so I could go to the gym. I was a little worried I’d get crap about it, but I didn’t. Instead, my requests for meetings outside of work hours were reduced dramatically- by over 80%!

6. Consider flexibility

While we should never allow ourselves to be pressured to sacrifice our boundaries, it’s important to consider flexibility in life and the workplace. After all, other people may have different boundaries and you may have to get creative to find common ground.

Consider what is worth extra effort that may go beyond your ideal state.

You’ll want to get pretty specific about this so that you don’t end up sliding into a mode where *everything* seems like it’s worth going beyond your boundaries.

For example, one year I was feeling really burned out at work and was hoping to take it a bit slower between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Just when I was figuring out how to do that, I learned a key colleague needed to go out on medical leave for a serious surgery.

Our team had strategy work for the next year to do as well as an important sales conference presentation scheduled for early January, so I decided to lean into working on those projects so the team could move forward.

I was tired AF, but I would do it again for a colleague with a serious medical issue.

I would NOT do it again if it was needed due to good old-fashioned bad planning, though.

Sometimes rigidity is not practical, or even useful. Try not to think of work-life balance as a black-and-white concept - look for the shades of gray when making tradeoffs.

7. Remember your boundaries

Always remember, a boundary isn’t a boundary if you don’t hold to it.

If you’re trying to create space in your life and you’re getting retaliation or negative repercussions, this will require a closer look.

If you’re still a high-performing individual, this could point to deeper issues in company culture or unclear boundaries.

And as much as it sucks to think about, it may mean leaving your company.

I mentioned time and digital boundaries in tip 5, but what about location boundaries?

Location boundaries are especially important when working from home. This might be having a dedicated space or room that you’ll confine your work to. These areas become your work zones, make sure to honor them.

Another trick to consider is setting digital boundaries. These might include turning off work notifications on your phone and avoiding working on your phone. Email and Slack can be huge contributors for blurring lines between work time and personal time.

I turn everything off on my phone and iPad that is related to work in order to create a digital boundary so I can watch Netflix in peace after work.

8. Start these practices up-front

It’s a lot easier to cut the cord if the cord doesn’t exist in the first place.

When you start a new job, don’t make the mistake of going all in from the get-go and making yourself available 24/7. I get it, you want to impress your new boss right off the bat, but you don’t want to create unrealistic expectations. It’s possible to impress without burning yourself out!

Recognize and set your work-life boundaries and stick to them from day one.

Final Thoughts from a No BS Career Coach about Cutting the Cord for Better Work-Life Balance

When you work a high-stress or all-encompassing job, it can feel impossible to leave work at work. By setting clear boundaries, communicating your expectations, and practicing healthy habits, you can “cut the cord” between you and your career, leaving you the space to experience a more fulfilling life outside the office.

If you’re ready to get some help planning your next career move, I’m here to help. To learn more, just send us a message telling us what you need!