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How to Leave Work at Work

by Charles Krouse

I attended a presentation yesterday that tried, and in my opinion failed, to offer practical tips for leaving work at work. Many of us, especially those of us who are career-driven and working remotely, struggle to separate work from the rest of our lives. At times, this includes me. Although practical tips are great, I think that addressing the challenge of leaving work at work is actually more of a value question. Practical tips treat the symptoms of an underlying condition. They do not treat the actual problem, which is a poor value system and a misplaced heart. To truly leave work at work, I will offer some of my thoughts.


Harvard Business Review (HBR) Offers 4 Steps


According to HBR, which provided the backbone for my coworker’s presentation, the failure to leave work at work “can lead to sitting at dinner while your daughter tells a story about her day, but instead of hearing her you’re wondering whether an email from your boss came through. It can mean exchanging time you could have spent on sleep, exercise, or talking with your spouse glued to your laptop. And it can look like keeping your work life in order, while your finances or home are a mess because you don’t take time to pay bills, plan for retirement, or tidy up.” To me, these consequences sound drastic, and I want to avoid them. However, the proposed solution is inadequate.


HBR proposed the following 4 steps, which are summarized below.

  1. Define “After Hours” – set and communicate your start and end hours

  2. Have Mental Clarity – determine what needs to get accomplished, create a list, and develop an end-of-day routine

  3. Communicate with Your Colleagues – communicate the hours that you will be working and control the means by which colleagues can communicate with you

  4. Get Work Done at Work – create time boxes for your time and be strict about getting your work done during those hours

HBR post: https://hbr.org/2020/02/how-to-leave-work-at-work

These Steps Do Not Address the Real Problem


What do you value most? Is it work? Time with your family? Faith? The thing that you value most is where your heart and mind will be. Therefore, if you find your mind drifting to work during off-work hours, then you have a heart problem. You do not have a work-boundaries problem. Your problem is much deeper than setting the appropriate boundaries with your colleagues and boss. If your heart is set on work, then HBR’s 4 steps might help alleviate the symptoms of a poor value structure, but they won’t alleviate the true underlying problem. The actual problem is setting the correct value structure.


What Do You Value Most?


There is always more work that I can be doing. Always. And the thing about work is that it is fulfilling, it is beneficial to humanity, and performing well in the workplace will lead to greater wealth. Therefore, it is tempting to place work at the top of your value structure, either explicitly or implicitly. If you find your mind constantly on work, then I would suggest you have implicitly placed work as your highest priority. Personally, I believe that work is extremely important and valuable, but I don’t think it should sit on the top rung of the value ladder.


How to Leave Work at Work (The Real Answer)


So we return to the original question: How do you leave work at work? Well if you are anything like me or my coworkers, then you want to continue working for many years into the future, and you want to continue performing well in your work. In order to do that, we need to maintain our health in all aspects of life: physical, relational, and spiritual.


1. Do Not Neglect Physical Health


Non-work activities such as exercise, meal preparation, and sleep are important because these activities keep our bodies physically healthy. In the short-term, exercise is difficult, preparing healthy meals is time-consuming, and sleep is easy to sacrifice. But the long-term benefits of regular physical exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep are undisputable. If we want to continue working for many years into our old age, then we need to maintain our physical health.

Even if our top-priority is work (which I would argue is wrong), then we should not feel guilty about exercising, and we should be able to focus on physical health without getting distracted by thoughts about work. Exercise and good physical health will help our work performance, and enable us to continue working well into the future. Therefore, exercise, nutrition, and other activities that promote physical health are essential for anybody who values their work. We should not feel guilty about taking some time every day to focus on physical health. With the proper view of how physical health enables strong work performance, I believe that you can leave work at work while exercising and preparing healthy meals.


2. Do Not Neglect Relationships


Arguably even more important than physical health is relationships. Like exercise and preparing healthy meals, relationships take time. In the short-term, it might appear that time spent focusing on relationships through conversations and “idle” time is wasteful. But to be successful in the long-term, we need to be supported by healthy and strong relationships. Personally, I know that to be successful in my career, I will need my wife’s support. I know that there will be tough times, and that I will need her encouragement and love to weather the storms. Similarly, I will need her love and joy to celebrate the good times and be reminded of the good things in life. Therefore, for long-term career success, we need the support of our significant others, and we should not feel guilty about giving them our time and energy.


This one has been especially difficult for me recently. I can easily feel like I am “wasting time” when I’m with my wife and we are idle. However, I am learning that these moments, which feel like “wasting time”, are actually the moments that build trust in our relationship. I have also been learning that while it is important to spend idle time with my wife, it is also important to communicate all of my time commitments with her. For example, it is important for me to share my work with her, and attempt to quantify the amount of time that work requires. When I communicate with her about my work, and communicate when work will require additional time, then she always responds well.


Therefore, with the proper view of relationships, and proper communication within those relationships, I believe that work does not need to negatively affect this area of our lives.


3. Do Not Neglect Spiritual Health


Most importantly, why do we work? Many books and sermons, spiritual and secular alike, have attempted to answer this question. Ultimately, the reason we work is based on what we believe and what we place at the top of our value structure, which by definition is “god”. For example, if we work for money, then money is our god. If we work for status, then reputation is our god. If we work so that we can enjoy free-time, then recreation is our god. If we work to glorify Yahweh, then God is our god.


Personally, I believe that there is no greater purpose in life than to praise, worship, and glorify God. By working with integrity, I am satisfying the greatest purpose of my life. The purpose which I was created for, which is to glorify God, is accomplished largely through my work. Work not only improves the lives of the people in the world around us, but it also glorifies God.


I spend time daily to improve my spiritual health by studying the Bible and studying Christianity, because these actions give me clarify about my life’s purpose. I work because God created me to work, and by working, I embody God’s design and glorify his creation. I do not feel guilty about spending time focusing on my spiritual health, because this area of my life has eternal significance and is of greater value than work itself.


Conclusion


Anything that does not fit into my value structure, which is summarized above, I eliminate. Activities outside of work that do not promote my physical, relational, or spiritual health are eradicated. Outside of work, I spend all of my time focusing on these 3 areas, each of which enable me to perform my job better. For example, I do not watch television or spend time at meaningless social events, because they do not benefit my work or health.


I find value in my work, and I find value in the activities that I do outside of work. Because I understand the value of work, and because I understand how my non-work actions affect my on-work performance, I do not feel guilty doing things like reading the Bible, spending time with my wife, or exercising.


To truly leave work at work, we need to identify our highest value, and we need to understand how all of our actions promote our highest value. For me, my highest value is glorifying God. Following HBR’s 4 steps simply treats the symptoms of a poor value structure. If our value structure is not right, or if it’s not well-defined, then we will continue to struggle with the true disease of a misplaced heart.


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