I’m drafting this work-life boundaries post just after classes have ended at my university. One of the interesting things about a job in academia is our schedules change all the time.

This can be a blessing and a curse. Anyone who has a job where your hours are fluid will know what I’m talking about. On the one hand, it’s great to be able to control most aspects of your work schedule. If you need to book an appointment, or go to something your kid is doing, or take a mental health break, you totally can.

The flip side is it’s easy to feel like we’re working all the time. A deadline is a deadline, after all, and things need to get done.

Deadline Exhaustion

Also, if you’re a Creative Night Owl you’ll likely find yourself pushing those deadlines late into the deep, dark hours. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if that’s how you like to work. This becomes a problem when it no longer works for us.

Further, if you’re someone who thrives on deadlines and task lists, what do you do when the pace suddenly slows and you have lots of open space? Sometimes we don’t know what the heck to do with that. Someone somewhere said, “If you need something done, give it to the busiest person you know.” Is that busy person you? It’s totally me.

So here we are at the end of the semester. There are no more classes and the schedule opens up. You still have things to do and maybe you’re waiting for that creative urge to hit before getting down to work. During those lovely long stretches of open time, what do you do? Are you a bit at a loss? Maybe a little social media rabbit hole, or Candy Crush binge? Anyone with me?

Are you waiting for things to get urgent before you move your butt into getting things done? I thrive on deadlines, they help me focus. But I don’t love the frantic pace anymore, or that cycle of deadline-push/crash/recover/repeat.

The Need for Work-Life Boundaries

Many of you know my story but in case you’re new, here’s the nutshell version. I’m a professor and second-time department chair. I love teaching but hate being chair, and the first time I was chair it almost killed me. In the two years between chairships, I started my essential oils business, built this website and started this blog.

I knew when the second chairship came around I would need to be able to work on my side hustle guilt-free, knowing I had given enough to the day job so no one could complain. I didn’t want to run the risk of anyone being able to say that my side business was getting in the way of my career. So, in those two years between chairships, while I was building my side business and website and blog, I endeavoured to figure this out.

During those two years I dove into the self-improvement world. Business and entrepreneurship was an entirely new universe for me. Being a lifelong learner and curious about everything, I started devouring podcasts and blog posts and books and online courses and and and… There is so much great advice out there on how to productive and effective with your work time.

We creative people sometimes don’t consider advice from the business world to be applicable to us, and in large part that’s probably true. But there are definitely approaches we can learn from the great entrepreneurs out there when it comes to work-life boundaries, and I would like to dive into one of those ideas here.

Rocks and Sand

I’m totally paraphrasing and this is not my story, and I’m assuming you all know this one. There’s a story about a professor who had a jar, and some rocks, and some sand. He put the sand into the jar then tried to fit in the rocks, and of course, the rocks wouldn’t fit. Then he did it the other way, put the rocks in first and then let the sand fill in the holes. Everything fit that way.

The Ideal Week strategy follows this idea. Your “big rocks” are the important things you need to fit into your week, and the “sand” fills in the gaps afterwards.

The Ideal Week strategy is not my own. I’m a huge fan of the Full Focus Planner by Michael Hyatt & Co which is where I first heard about the idea. I wrote about how my Full Focus Planner fits into my juggling routine here: Pen-to-Paper Productivity.  You don’t need to use the Full Focus Planner to employ the Ideal Week strategy. Look here for Michael Hyatt’s Ideal Week.

The Ideal Week Exercise

Here’s the exercise. Grab a weekly schedule grid, something you can play around with. You can find an empty week in your google calendar (go forward a couple of years if you have to!) or find a free printout online. You’ll want to see the full week, Sunday-Saturday, and a reasonable stretch of hours from morning to night.

Pretend you could craft a week that is completely under your control. We all know that’s not possible, but allow yourself to dream a little. What are the important things you want to see in that weekly schedule?

Important: think about the things you want to see in the schedule in addition to the things you need to see in it. Family time, social time, personal time, decompression time, all those times need spots too.

When you look at your “rocks”, consider lumping similar activities together. Michael Hyatt has a useful analogy to performance. “Frontstage” or onstage, “backstage” or preparation, and “off-stage” or personal time.

If you can find entire days devoted to just one of these “stage” categories at a time, you may find it easier to stay on task during the day. I have found this extremely useful in planning my academic year work week. I have Mondays and Fridays devoted entirely to “backstage” activities such as answering the never-ending emails, doing class prep, and completing reports. All of my teaching, or “front stage”, is on Tuesday-Thursday. I try to schedule meetings on Tuesday-Thursday too.

A Reasonable Amount of Work Time

For the 2020-21 academic year I did the Ideal Week exercise to plan out my work-life boundaries. I wanted to be able to “leave work at work”, even though “work” was also “home” all year. As an administrator, I needed to be available during “normal” work hours, so I set up my ideal week to support that.

My plan was this: if I allot a reasonable amount of work time to my day job, then no one can complain that my side business is getting in the way. That’s what started all of this. No one has complained about this, at least not to my face, so I assume my plan is working.

In my Ideal Week exercise, I had a “reasonable amount of work time” as one of my big rocks. It was The Big Rock. I figured, if I put in 9-5 Monday-Friday hours to my day job, then no one can expect more of me. That is a reasonable amount of time by anyone’s standards, even for those of us who habitually extend past the 40-hour workweek.

But, there’s more. There were some great benefits I wasn’t expecting.

The Surprise

It worked.

Never before in my entire life have I experienced greater success in my work-life balance, all while working 99% from home. I was not expecting this.

When I reached the end of the day-job workday each day, I could close up my work email and wrap up the day, and leave that work alone until the next workday. Yes, I was doing other productivity things to make the most out of my workday, and email management was one of the biggest hurdles (read more about Inbox Zero here).

Being able to shut down the workday and not feel compelled to respond to emails after hours, or even check my work emails after hours (gasp!) was incredibly supportive to my creative time.

I regained my evenings and weekends and now I work on my side business 100% without guilt. What I do outside of my reasonable work hours is no one’s business but my own.

If you’re someone who habitually holds on to day-job work and does it during times that feel invasive to your personal time, maybe finding space in your ideal week will help you compartmentalize the activities and keep your work nose out of your personal time’s business. It has definitely worked for me.

Try It

Here’s a step-by-step guide if you want to try this work-life boundaries exercise for yourself:

  • find a blank weekly schedule – use your digital calendar or find a printable download
  • place your “big rocks” – day job, creative time, family, health, whatever is most important to you
  • try to group things into similar categories – backstage, front stage, off stage
  • try it and see what happens!

It’s called “ideal week” for a reason. If it doesn’t work out the way you hoped, it’s not a failed exercise! Look for what works and what doesn’t and tweak accordingly.

Oily Coda

Use oils to help reinforce your new work-life boundaries. Use the same aroma every time you start one of your big rocks and you’ll make the association between them.

For example, I love Peppermint/Lime/Rosemary when I’m working, so I have a roller bottle on my desk to use when I work.

For practicing I like Peppermint/Wild Orange/Rosemary/Frankincense. There’s a roller bottle on my piano for that.

When I set up my journaling in the morning I use dōTERRA’s Island Mint blend in the diffuser, every single time.

At the end of the workday, I like to use dōTERRA’s Cheer blend. It’s very different from the minty/citrus blends I use for work, and it reliably shifts me into family time.

Try implementing work-life boundaries and see what works for you!

Report back! I’d love to know what’s working.