After spending every day on the road, I come home at night to a work answering machine filled with messages that take until bedtime to return. How
can I get my nights back?
-- S.G., Port Washington, N.Y.
I often have difficulty stopping work on a project and ending my day -- even when I'm not facing a deadline. Dinner doesn't get prepared on time or
at all, and I feel like I'm letting my family down.
-- J.E., Great Neck, N.Y.
I've heard from readers pestered by clients on weekends, but these letter writers have an even more basic -- and more common -- problem: They
tether themselves to their jobs. To break out of their self-imposed prison, they need to bear a few things in mind.
First, the pep talk: If you want to compete with big companies, you're going to have to start acting like them. "Burning people out is not in their
long-term interest," says Roger Branch, vice-president for human resources at Management Recruiters International in Cleveland. Big corporations
consider reasonable working hours as important a measure of their quality as meeting customer needs and containing costs, he notes.
The trick is establishing rituals that signal quitting time and help you make the mental shift from work to home, says Sandy Anderson, the author
of The Work at Home Balancing Act (Avon) and Women in Career and Life Transitions (JIST). Choose the ritual yourself. It may be as
simple as turning off your monitor, clearing your desk, and making a to-do list for the following workday. Or take a walk. Change your clothes and
freshen up. Write in a journal to unwind.
Anderson likes the to-do list option best because it gives you the sense that things are in order, and this can help you turn off for the night.
If a ritual doesn't work, you probably fall into one of the following categories:
-- You really have too much to do. If so, figure out how to farm out some of the drudgery. It probably costs less than you think to pay for a few
hours of typing, for example.
-- You're a prisoner of your tech tools, even when you manage to leave the office. Time to "de-tether yourself from the electronic lifelines," says
Bruce Barry, organizational psychologist and professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management. "It's hard, but pull back and
ask how responsive you really have to be. Not everyone expects their call to be returned in 20 minutes," he says.
-- You're not wired enough. Audit your work habits, techniques, and tools, and figure out what's going wrong, suggests Stanley Simkins, management
consultant and founding prinicipal of Organizational & Human Resources Development in Albany, New York. You probably need a systems makeover.
-- You really don't want to go home. Are you ducking dealing with problems in your personal life?
-- You have a serious compulsiveness problem. If so, seek professional help. "If you can't find a life out of work, if you really feel regrets that
you're not spending time with family and other avocations," Barry says, "it's time to call a psychologist."
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers,
magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now
works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.