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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

A Reformed Office Martyr's Guide to Achieving Work-Life Balance

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I used to be that person: I had my hand in everything at the office. I took on all the projects. I stayed late. I was always drowning in an endless to-do list, and everyone knew it. I considered myself the pillar holding up the roof and keeping the lights on. I ate at my desk and wore my high billables and exhaustion like badges of honor.

That’s right. I was an office martyr.

What I didn’t understand then is that more isn’t more. Staying late and constantly piling more work on myself didn’t make me more admired, give me skills to be a better marketer, or win me any friends. It just made me constantly tired and on the edge of burnout.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a place for being a go-getter. You should absolutely go after what you want, work hard, and prioritize productivity. I’m all about productivity. But—take it from me—your life needs balance, too. Here are four steps to make the shift:

Step 1: Adjust Your Attitude

Nothing will change unless you learn to do this first.

I tried countless times to “just set boundaries” or “take a lunch,” but taking breaks or trying to delegate just added stress, because I was always adding on more work to compensate. I craved the feeling of being seen as the hardest-working and most-knowledgeable in the office as a type of acceptance and security.

And so, I learned the first step to changing my habits was to change my value proposition.

Repeat after me: You are not your job. Try to find other areas in your life where you can channel some of your Type A or go-getter tendencies to help balance out your commitments and help build areas of your self-identity that have nothing to do with work.

Step 2: Start Saying “No”

Most cases of office martyrdom I’ve seen (myself included!) aren’t a result of bosses or teammates piling on too much work. Most of the time, we’ve done it to ourselves. We’ve taken on the burden to satisfy the part of us that isn’t fulfilled unless we’re overworked—and seen that way.

It’s OK to start small. Try saying “no” to a small extra project. Try saying “no” just to things that aren’t in your job description, like fixing the printer or proofing the investor report from start to finish. Guess what? I promise, you won’t suddenly be the office slacker. The lights at the office will stay on. The walls will still stand.

Like any habit, it’ll take time and practice to build—not just to get others used to your new response, but to feel at ease saying it yourself. So stick with it even if you’re uncomfortable. Work up to the point where you’re able to honestly evaluate your workload and make a decision on what new tasks to take on and what deserves a polite, friendly, “I can’t do that.”

If you’re uncomfortable with flat refusal, it can be helpful in a team environment to offer alternatives. “I can’t do that in the timeframe you’re talking about. What about by this date?” or “I can do that if we can move something else around. Can I turn in this other project by this alternate date?”

The important part is that you’re completely honest with yourself and others about what’s possible.

Related: How to Tell Your Boss “No”—Without Saying “No”

Step 3: Embrace Downtime

Taking a break is good for you. If you’re an office martyr of any stripe, that sentence sound like sacrilege. But trust me, anyone who’s impressed by your didn’t-even-go-to-the-bathroom-today dedication doesn’t care about your well-being.

Taking breaks actually makes you more focused and more productive: It’s a scientific fact.

So, start building them into your schedule. If you can, get up and move around every few hours, and definitely take your full lunch break. You’re not slacking off—that lunch break is accounted for in your pay. You literally earned it.

And don’t forget to go home. I know everyone’s going to have a few late nights at the office here and there, but it’s not a late night at the office if you’re always the last one out. Set an “I’m done” time and stick to it. (This counts for freelancers and remote workers, too—step away from the computer at the day’s end!)

Step 4: Delegate

Are you afraid things really will fall apart if you don’t do every item on your oversized task list? Then you need to delegate ASAP.

Invest the time in teaching others your methods, but also get clear on what projects it’d be OK for someone to do differently, so long as they still get done. Start small to build up your comfort level and trust the person taking over the task. While you should stay available for questions and feedback, do not jump back in.

Are you telling yourself you’ll be everyone’s favorite colleague by handling so much extra work? Reality check: Hoarding all the things for yourself is actually kinda selfish, and learning to give opportunities and credit to others is one of the best things you can learn to do as a teammate or manager.

Yes, there will be legitimate situations when you need to put in extra hours and going home at a reasonable time seems impossible. And other times, there will be staff transitions that mean there’s no one to delegate to. But in general, office martyrs need to accept that striving for work-life balance is not weakness and not a pseudonym for “I don’t want to be responsible.” We can all understand that creating boundaries between work and the rest of our lives is healthy.

Today, I not only believe that working smarter is working harder, I actually feel it. Embracing all the parts of me that make up a full life has made me a much better teammate, employee, and person.