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Melissa Guachun
Melissa Guachun

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Out of Bounds: A Lesson in Setting Work Boundaries

With every week of work, I'm gaining more and more insight into what I want out of a job. The open ended questions we receive on interviews start making sense once you've acquired some experience in the field. The question "what are you looking for in a job?" comes to mind.

When I was freelancing, what I was looking for in a job was to see another job. There was so much unpredictability in freelancing, it seemed like finishing a job was a luxury of itself. This is because there's so much that can go wrong: compensation/contract disagreements, lack of budget, or being scammed (to just name a few). What I was looking for in a job at that time was more work. You were never done looking for the next gig. Unless you were represented by an agency or working for a large company, you were on your own. As you can imagine it can become toxic real fast. You begin to undersell yourself, take on projects without contracts, or even do free work for the sake of "exposure". There were times where I, myself, felt gross from the feats I went to get paid for my work. And no matter how much you worked, you were always thinking about where your next paycheck will come from.

Now, as a web developer, I'm able to take comfort in the perks that come with a job in my field. Yes, there is a lot of competition in the hiring process, but with that comes stability. It's a feeling I'm still getting used to.

Since I've been working I've been taught to deliver products and services according to what the client is looking for. But now, the tables have turned. For the first time, I'm able to self reflect on my job and decide on my own prospects. With it comes more personal and complex issues that take a lot of reflection and evaluation.

I see my old habits as a freelancer sneak into my new work environment as a developer. My partner would find me up past midnight in the dark, my dinner still sitting next to me, untouched for hours. The blue light of my laptop illuminates my face as I try to complete my work. Other times I would be found in the exact same place on the couch with a collage of tabs opened as I debug an error in my code, wearing the same sweats for five days straight. For hours on end, consecutive days, even on weekend evenings, I would be working non stop.

The manic nature of working to complete a task, just to look for the next role to complete mimicked the behavior of my former freelancing self. I was acting like I was searching for the next paycheck, but why? I have a job, I have amazing coworkers, and stability. So why am I still acting this way?

It was clear that I was only operating to survive, not thrive. My past career was coming to haunt me in the worst way and I wanted to pin this bad habit in the butt. With my help from my partner and peers, I began to evaluate how I can set up better work boundaries for myself. (Disclosure: these are tips that work for my own situation).

I wasn't even aware at how harmful my behavior has been to me and my mental health if my loved ones hadn't stepped in. Having a support system is important for that reason.

When I brought this issue to a friend in the field, they were immediately concerned. It can be hard coming from a different field with your own work schedule and adapting into a whole new work flow. Having friends in your field helps tremendously because they offer insight that can make this transition a whole lot easier. They immediately suggested setting a hard shut down period at a certain time. This meant no LinkedIn, no slack, no coding editors, even shutting down your computer. Basically no screen time after 5. This seemed a bit intense but I followed their advice.

It felt wrong to stop everything when I could just keep making more headway on a project. It even made me feel nervous, like what am I going to do now? Rest?

As uncomfortable as it made me at first, I soon forgot those feelings because I was able to enjoy a meal with my partner and not my computer. I felt more present. I felt like I wasn't tethered to my work.

Change of Location
Working remotely means you can take advantage of working from the comfort of your home. But if you're like me, an anxious person who can't decide when to take a break, then it's probably best to physically step away from your work. I find it helpful to get out, despite how lousy I'm feeling, to get some air.

Whether you know it or not, your eyes need rest from the blue light of your screen. That means actually looking away and not just redirecting your attention to your phone. These walks can be cathartic for me because I'm forced to think about other things besides work because I'm not in my work environment. As much as I hate to admit it, walks are great for your mental health and can help you regain mindfulness after mindlessly staring at a screen.

You don't even have to leave your home if you feel so inclined. When it's too cold I'll get something to drink and look out my window for a few minutes. It's a pretty ideal place to zone out and give your brain a much needed break from your code.

Work Hours
(Note: this works for my position as a part time employee in my particular situation)
Since my position is part time, I'm obligated to clock in the appropriate hours for the week in a weekly report. More often than not, I find I get more done when I compartmentalize my hours into chunks instead of smaller hours at different times during the day (or night). Establishing actual work hours ensures me that I'm meeting the qualified amount of hours for my job, reassures me that I'm working the appropriate amount of time, and allows me to declare when I am off hours.

I make sure my hours are measured so I'm working the same amount of time each day. In that time I keep my schedule open for meetings with my coworkers for brainstorming, debugging, as well as taking care of my own tasks. My window of time is limited because once I meet the end of my shift, I shut down communication for my job. This is akin to the no screens time at the end of the day. Once I reach the maximum amount of hours, I am unreachable to my colleagues. Any meetings, direct messages, or emails are not seen until I clock back in the next morning.

At first I was nervous about setting this boundary. I didn't want to seem like I wasn't a team player, or that I was being closed off. I was reminded by my partner that I can't be able to do my job and help others if I don't take care of myself first. By setting this boundary, I am looking after my own well being so that I can properly take care of myself and recharge for the next day.

Staying up til the wee hours of the night won't manifest a breakthrough. In my opinion, I make the worst mistakes when I'm tired. And it won't do my team any good if I'm pushing code that has syntax errors and bugs galore.

Not having a way to clock out will only lead to you being burnt out more frequently. The ability to signify when you're off the clock establishes a routine for yourself.

I find this helpful when working from home because I don't have a commute to help me process the start or end of my day. So having a way to turn off communication once the day is over, tells your mind that it's time to shift gears into rest mode.

Pockets of Self Care
This can be another challenging but essential part, especially when working from home. It's hard to imagine what self care can be for yourself rather than how it's been commodified by social media.

What self care looks for me is watching something funny on youtube, preparing/sharing a meal with my partner, taking a walk, playing with my dog, doing my make up for the day, doing a 5 minute meditation. It doesn't have to be an expensive endeavor to find moments of self care.

You're probably doing these things already in your day to day routine. The point of this is to invest time in yourself in a mindful manner.

The best part about growth is that you begin to learn more about yourself. In this case, I've begun understanding what I'd want out of my job. In the future, when I'm asked this question, I'll know to mention a healthy work life balance.

As an artist, taking a break felt ridiculous. It felt like a sign of weakness which is now a tremendous miscalculation on my end. When I think of where I was then to where I am now, I understand that you can't show up for others without taking the time to take care of yourself.

In my next opportunity, I know I'll be looking for a place that values a healthy work life balance. Resting is as important as working, and having an environment that supports that message is probably the best for my own needs.

I've found through my new job, I'm able to build out a new skillset of setting work boundaries. It's a skill I'm still getting used to and honing in on skill wise. But I know I wouldn't have gotten to this realization without this job, and for that, I'm forever grateful.

Top comments (3)

diballesteros profile image
Diego (Relatable Code)

Great article! My problem is not only with work but with all this free time I feel like I should be more productive in all facets.

melguachun profile image
Melissa Guachun

I completely agree! I deal with the same guilt. It's hard not to feel bad about doing nothing while resting!

diballesteros profile image
Diego (Relatable Code)

Have to force myself away from the computer at times 😅

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