5 Boundary-Setting Tips for the Work Obsessed

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Anne Zelenka, who serves as Editor at Large for Web Worker Daily.]

If you are so passionate about your work that you border on obsessed, you might find it near impossible to turn work off.

This is especially so in the web age, when you can stay connected no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re doing. What do you do when suggestions like “work only during certain hours” and “don’t check email on evenings and weekends” just don’t seem to be enough?

Here are five more powerful tricks for keeping work in its place…

1. Choose flow-inducing hobbies that really engage you and pull your mind away from work.

Flow is a sense of effortless engagement in what you’re doing. You’ll find it in activities that have clear objectives and challenge you just a bit beyond your current level of skill. What kind of hobbies can produce flow? Sports like skiing or martial arts, art like painting or pottery, games like poker or bridge, and puzzles like crosswords or sudoku are a few examples. Such activities will lure you away from work because, unlike passive activities like watching TV, they can provide the same sense of engagement and challenge that your work life offers.

2. Set goals in your personal life just like you do in your professional life.

Working towards goals is a sure way of getting yourself excited enough about non-work activities that you can pull yourself away work. This tip works in tandem with the first, because goal-oriented activities are more likely to provide a sense of flow than activities taken on for simple recreation and relaxation. Tim Ferriss describes a process he calls “dreamlining” [sample worksheets and excel tools here] for applying timelines to your life goals and dreams — that’s a great way to make your personal goals just as actionable as your work projects.

3. Schedule dates with other people for non-work activities.

For example, schedule a workout session with a personal trainer, arrange to meet a friend for happy hour after work, or make weekend plans with your friends or family to go hiking. Solo plans are easier to break in favor of work; if you have a commitment to another person you’ll be more likely to shut the laptop and mobile phone off.

4. Use tech boundaries to separate your work and your life.

Think about whether you need to create different computer, email, and instant messaging accounts for personal versus professional activities. If you have access to all your work tools when you log in to upload vacation photos or video chat with a friend, you’re likely to get drawn into work email and work tasks even when you intend otherwise. If you show up as available on your work instant messaging account on a Saturday, a colleague might ask you a quick question that leads to a long discussion that consumes your weekend.

5. Decide your “no”s in advance.

Follow Tim’s advice and use the 80/20 rule to figure out which types of activities in your work life just aren’t worth the time you put in. This might be meeting people for lunch, attending conferences requiring plane travel and overnight stays, or taking extra projects on weekends. Whatever your low-value activities are, make a rule up front to say “no” instead of deciding on a case-by-case basis. If you can rule out entire classes of relatively unproductive business activities like this, you’ll leave more room for your personal life and boost your professional effectiveness at the same time.

Anne’s new book, Connect! A Guide to a New Way of Working from GigaOM’s Web Worker Daily, with Judi Sohn, offers practical tips and inspiration for anyone who wants to use the web for work success and satisfaction.

Related links:

The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen (Plus: Weapons of Mass Distraction)

E-mail-Free Fridays and How to Save Your Weekend

Chapter 5 – The End of Time Management: Illusions and Italians

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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54 Replies to “5 Boundary-Setting Tips for the Work Obsessed”

  1. Great tips! “Flow-inducing hobbies” are a great idea. I took last Friday off to go skiing and didn’t miss work one bit. It required my full mental/physical concentration, so thinking about work wasn’t even an option. 🙂

  2. Hmm, fewer posts, keep them purer… otherwise this blog will just blend into the rest of the new self-help genre: an endless list of numbered bullet-point articles of mini rules to follow.

    Quality is working just fine, no need for quantity (and that’s not a slight to Web Worker Daily; I RSS subscribe to that, but that’s not why I RSS subscribe to this… ).

    Is that fair?

  3. Great post. Suggestions 1 and 2 definitely ring true for me. I love what I do for work so it’s really easy for it to consume my free time. I combat this in two ways:

    1. I play and watch a lot of hockey. I absolutely love it and it’s nearly impossible to think about work during.

    2. I started treating my free time as a job. Mainly, this means I schedule fun activities and stick to them. Small things like setting reminders to contact friends or to plan the week’s fun activities in advance go a long way. I also research and plan “fun-time” with the same gusto as work projects.

    The latter really forces me to focus on how I want to spend my time and gets me to make it happen.

  4. Great people look at all parts of their life and learn to balance all of them to create a harmonious existence.

    Which is probably the most difficult thing for most of us to do because our emotions sway us to and fro, but when we can put flow into all parts of our life we are heading in the right direction.

    Tim, you have a very creative mind! Keep it up.

  5. Internal martial arts, like Tai Chi, are great for bringing your attention to the present, and away from work. Any kind of moving meditation is good as it engages you both physically and mentally. It also leaves you feeling relaxed, focused, and energized.

    Try taking breaks during your work day to do something like this and you’ll find that when you go back to your work you not only feel better, you’re more productive. This is especially good if you tend to drink a lot of coffee, or if you tend to multitask too much and feel scattered a lot.

  6. Talk about timing. I’m sitting here at 11PM EST after working my full-time gig all day, running my muse in between meetings, and coming home to mountains of paperwork. Not for long.

    Thankfully, my muse has been so successful I’m quitting my (extremely lucrative) job in three weeks and, assuming the paperwork I’ve been working on all night every night for the past several weeks goes through, I’ll be riding my muse at full-speed and start really laying in the Work/Life boundaries!

    Thanks Tim, your book can be credited 100% with me getting my muse launched. My product and website was featured on TV within three days of launching! Unfortunately I missed your request for 4HWW success stories, but let me know if you want more details, I’d love to share them with you.


  7. Great tips, I especially enjoyed Number 3, and especially for the opposite sex! Gets you out of your office, home, etc and enjoying and experiencing other people!

  8. These are some great tips. If anything, having other things in your life is best. Hobbies, friends, girlfriend (or boyfriend), charity, etc. Just having some other obligation that you are happy to fulfill is the best way to break away when needed.

  9. #2 is my favorite. I consider myself as a pipeline that processes external events – work, personal, social. I am only one, the events are enormous. If I give priority to one the other hurts since I am only one and I can process things one thing a time. That is why #2 resonates with me so much. Not setting priorities and goals with personal life will allow other events to fill the pipeline without a chance for personal things get handled.

  10. Great post, I see a lot of people that think that they don’t have time for a personal life or hobbies, but they only need to reprioritize and structure their life a little bit. I for myself am going to trek in India now, great stress relief =).

  11. Great post! I’m not work obsessed. I’m actually quite the opposite but I know a lot of people who are and could benefit from this.

  12. Volunteering is great for scheduling time away from work (and some companies let you do this during office hours) as well as a good avenue for meeting people and getting inspired. If you truly have trouble finding things to look forward to outside of work, find a cause you can care about and help out in some way.

    If you can’t find a cause you care about at all – you’re probably comatose.

  13. Good stuff here. I especially resonate with #2 and #3; am about to sign up for a triathlon for June which will stretch me but put a nice marker down. Whenever I do schedule “dates” with others it pays off in manner you describe, ie provides a governor to work (or in my case full-time grad school)

  14. are there really that many workaholics these days with the advent of the computer and the internet? I dunno. I’m more likely to sit and play solitaire or browse websites like this while i should be working.

    Maybe a 5 tips for ways to concentrate at work will be more appropriate for our generation. 🙂

  15. Interesting Blog! It has definitely been a great experience for me to do martial arts to help relieve stress. I might mention too, that yoga also helps.



  16. Great post. What happens, however, when your work and hobby have crossover? For instance, I run a vintage clothing company, and it’s my true passion. I can’t ever seem to turn off because I truly am obsessed with what I do. It’s killing my personal relationships! I haven’t read Ferris’ book yet, but I’m hoping it will answer some of these question.



  17. Great post. What happens, however, when your work and hobby have crossover? For instance, I run a vintage clothing company, and it’s my true passion. I can’t ever seem to turn off because I truly am obsessed with what I do. It’s killing my personal relationships! I haven’t read Ferris’ book yet, but I’m hoping it will answer some of these question.



  18. Hi,

    Apologies if this is slightly off topic. First of all I must express my absolute delight that there is actually a community dedicated to lifestyle design and living life on our own preset terms rather than other people’s terms.

    I was curious as to whether http://www.edom.co.uk is a reputable merchant of the four hour workweek book? I ordered the book 3 days ago and their site promised me delivery within 24 hours of an electronic version of the book. I have attempted to contact them twice and they have not replied. Does anyone have any experience or advice?


  19. Tim,

    Off topic – I’m currently living in Berlin and looking for a VPA who can work with German & English. Having spent time in Berlin…can you make a recommendation?



  20. Creating tech boundaries is a technique that I use regularly. I keep separate business and personal e-mail accounts. I also turn off my business mobile phone/pda in the evenings when I am spending time with my family. Another idea is to take a vacation or “mini-retirement” to a distant location with limited or no access to the Internet, wireless network, and television!

  21. Number 3 is huge: Schedule dates with other people for non-work activities.

    Its one of the best ways to create work-life balance.

    Great post!

  22. Good post Tim. I’ve always enjoyed singing and I found that my productivity actually got a lot better once I started going to a local barbershop choir weekly to learn how to do it. I totally forget about work and just have fun with a bunch of retired guys.


  23. Hi from a newbie! 🙂

    Good tips (and great Blog)!

    […]Choose flow-inducing hobbies that really engage you and pull your mind away from work[…]

    sometimes the hobbies could be so flow-inducing that it would be hard to come back to work 😛

    Bye! 😀


  24. Great post! I sometimes struggle with this because, as someone said above, I’ve turned my hobbies into my work…and I love what I do. I do love the idea of “flow hobbies” and I know that getting out in nature is always a healthy thing for me to do.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  25. Hi Tim,

    I bought your book at Melbourne airport, Australia. I almost didn’t pick it up because of the cover (2 people with a bunch of balloons and a TV), however the title attracted me, and I read the blurb then bought it.

    Glad I did!

    The book cover with the 2 silhouetted palm trees looks heaps better! Ditch the balloons cover if you can.

    Loved your book, and I am already implementing some of your strategies simultaneously including hiring some Indian help by placing an here: https://www.getafreelancer.com/projects/215924.html

    You have definitely helped me crystalise a lot of the thoughts and ideas that were already whirling around in my head. I haven’t been this excited about a “business book” in years!



  26. This has been the most important book I have read in my entire life.

    I allowed myself to literally carry this book in hand, reading and re-reading and re-reading various sections for nearly 8 months, but had never read past page 247… Ha!

    I found myself in a funk and trying to redefine my purpose because I had accomplished almost everything I had set out to do so far. Then… I got to page 265. I am amazed daily by how life will allow us to carry around exactly what we have been searching for all along, but only gives it to us at just the times when we really need it.

    I’m heavily involved in music and moved to Austin TX a few months ago so I could stage manage a music venue instead of just crewing. If you ever come back to Austin for the festival, I hope that I have the opportunity to meet you. Page 270 bitch-slapped me and I when I do meet you, you will be greeted by the biggest hug ever.

    I have given a few copies of your book to friends and it has had a profound effect on them as well. I would like to buy 10-15 more copies as gifts but I would like to have them signed. Could you please let me know who I need to speak to to purchase these signed copies?

    Thank you for having the second most profound effect on my life (you will never beat my father, haha) and for giving me a road map to do more of the random and outlandish things I had been dreaming of.


    Betty Jean


    Hi Betty,

    Thanks so much for the kind words! This comment totally made my day, and I will be at SXSW (www.sxsw.com) from March 7-9 in Austin, so count me in for hugs. I don’t really do book signings, but if you Google “Barnes and Noble Pruneyard Campbell” you’ll find a local store, where I sign books when I go in to buy books for myself. They should be able to ship signed copies to you.

    Thanks again and hope to see you soon 🙂


  27. Wow – great tips! I am a workaholic. I take my laptop on holidays. I sleep with my wife and my other wife (no, not that! My BlackBerry!!) and check e-mails all-the-time! I’ve tried to slow down, but just can’t seem to sit still. I am going to put your tips into action!

    I am rather proud of myself, since this year I actually took 5 days off of work — and didn’t turn the laptop on even once.

    Time to take the next step, learn to say “no”, get back to some of my hobbies and learn to relax.



  28. awesome post. now we just need to see a post of 5 tips for stearing away from “play” related activities to focus on “work” related activities (for those of us that get side tracted on play activities when we should be working – hehe)

  29. I particularly like the tip about getting together with friends to do flow like activities (I played poker with friends last night until 3am – great fun but not so good for personal productivity the following day…). That’s particularly important for people that work alone a lot of the time. Like Tim says in the recent post on depression, people who spend time eating together stay mentally healthier. I don’t have a family so friends and games make a very healthy substitute.


    I just implemented the “do not multi-task” and “simplify – do only what is needed” in combination. I used to spend 30 – 60 minutes 5 nights a week gathering data for my investment newsletter. When I simplified it in preparation to sending task to a VA, I found I had filled it with crap I hadn’t used in a year. It took only 5 minutes to fill in the new, simplified spreadsheet which contains everything I need.


  31. I’m a believer in setting personal goals as well as professional ones. Life is more than business so it should be a priority to make time for the many other aspects of it. Great Post.

  32. I always find myself spending way too much time working. Even after reading your book, it seemed that instead of working less hours, and removing myself from my old job, I just created more jobs for myself. Too much time was taken.

    Sometimes I worry that if I don’t do it, it won’t get done right. I need to keep reminding myself of the 80/20 rule. It would basically set me free. Thanks.

  33. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I’d personally also like to convey that video games have been ever evolving. Technology advances and inventions have made it easier to create reasonable and enjoyable games. These types of entertainment games were not that sensible when the actual concept was being experimented with. Just like other forms of technological know-how, video games way too have had to advance by means of many years. This is testimony towards fast growth of video games.

  34. I definitely needed these tips – very useful. I think I’m going to finally use all the art supplies I bought and take up sketching.