Five Ways I Avoid Overwork While Rocking a Flexible Schedule

overwork flexible schedule

Last week I posted about how having a flexible work schedule helps me crush it at work and why I think more organizations need to offer flexible scheduling wherever practicable. When I shared the post on Facebook, one of my friends responded with a link to this article, which cautions that flexible scheduling may lead folks to work more hours than their more rigidly scheduled peers. I’m glad she shared this with me, because not only did it show that she had read, engaged with, and given a damn about what I’d written (<3), the article made me realize that in writing about how I use a flexible schedule to make my work life more manageable and produce higher quality work, I completely neglected to discuss the other side of the coin - how, with such a flexible schedule, I keep my work life from overtaking my other interests and relationships.

It’s funny that I haven’t written about this before because it’s something that I can’t seem to shut up about in my day-to-day life, particularly in the context of nonprofit work. I’m sure we’ve all read at least one article stating the positive effects that taking breaks throughout the day, eating well, getting enough sleep, meditating, etc. have on our body’s (including our brain’s!) ability to function and just generally get shit done - not to mention the myriad of safety concerns that can arise from being tired and/or stressed at work. For folks working face-to-face with community members, sleep and overall health can make the difference between being attentive or impatient with the very people they are there to serve, whether it shows outwardly or not. Clearly taking care of ourselves and avoiding overwork are important factors in how prepared we are to show up and be present in our lives - both personal and professional.

With that in mind, here are five ways I keep my flexible schedule from causing me to over work and ultimately burn myself out (which I’ve experienced and am not interested in going through again):

  1. I don’t work overtime unless absolutely necessary. I’m a big believer in applying the concept of quality over quantity to my work hours and in the need for regulation around maximum hours of work and overtime compensation to protect workers from overwork and/or abuse by their employer. I will always look for ways to streamline my work using better tools and systems not only to get the most out of my time (i.e. high quality outputs), but to ensure that I can do what I need to do without going into overtime. My best work is usually done before about hour 6 of my workday anyway, so I know that anything over 8 hours is probably garbage work that I could have done better if I had just gone home to rest and attacked it first thing the following day.

  2. I protect my personal time. We use Google to manage most of our internal communications at my organization, including email and instant messenger. I have the apps for these tools on my phone, which is great for when I’m out and about during the workday, working from somewhere other than my office, or to stay in contact during work events. Once my workday is done, however, it’s easy to fall into the trap of checking my email after hours or responding to messages when I’m off the clock. To combat this, I’ve had to set rules for myself (e.g. no email unless I’m on paid time, messenger apps get muted when I get home) and develop some serious self discipline. I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes mess this up, but on the whole I’ve gotten pretty darn good at only working during work time, whatever my schedule might be that week.

  3. I try not to eat lunch at my desk. I won’t lie, this is legitimately the most difficult part of managing my work schedule, mostly because the lunch breaks I take are unpaid and I struggle with the idea that taking a break extends my workday (which is not to say that I don’t like being at work, but I also like cooking dinner or reading in the park after work - you know?). Still, I’ve observed a marked difference in the quality of my work (not to mention my overall energy level) when I walk away from my desk for lunch. The time I take to get up, move around, and eat something noticeably improves my ability to focus and overall productivity in the afternoon. I know I'm not alone in finding that a proper lunch break gives the quality of my work on any given day a real boost, which is why I think all workplaces should offer paid meal breaks (more on that another time).

  4. I take my vacation time when it is owed and make myself completely unavailable to work when I do. I think the truest test of one’s systems and ability to delegate is whether they can go away for a week or more without the entire workplace crumbling in their absence. My organization has a finance team of 2 - myself and a part-time bookkeeper who has been with the organization for many years and is completely capable of working independently and picking up the slack when I’m away. If I didn’t have that ultra-reliable person on my team, it would be my responsibility to find someone and train them properly so they could fill that role. The way I see it, as someone in a management position part of ensuring that my job gets done is making sure there is someone else to step in if I’m not there for any reason, whether that means being away due to an emergency or taking the vacation time I’m entitled to. It can be scary to let someone step in and cover for you while you take a break, and frankly I think that some managers don’t want to believe that anyone else can fill their shoes, but sometimes we just need to get over all of that and step away so we can come back refreshed and ready to tackle our workloads with a clear head.

  5. I take quiet time to tackle tasks that require high levels of focus. I don’t believe that having an open door or being instantly available via email or messenger apps 100% of the time is conducive to effective or efficient work. Since I’m all about getting things done efficiently while also wanting to be available when people have questions or need my help, I’ve taken to communicating my occasional need for space to my coworkers before digging into a task. Usually that means sending out a quick message to everyone that I’ll be muting my messenger app and ignoring emails for a set number of hours, then putting a sign on my office door and shutting it. I let everyone know that they are welcome to call me on the phone if there is something urgent that they need help with, and I’ve found that to be enough to keep less urgent requests at bay until I can make myself available again. This helps me get things done in a reasonable amount of time instead of dragging the work out with constant interruptions, which have the potential to put me into overtime if I don’t keep them in check. 10/10 do recommend setting and communicating boundaries at work - it’s a much more elegant solution than getting cranky when your 20+ colleagues can’t read your mind during busy times.

So there’s a short-but-long-winded list of ways that I keep my flexible schedule from resulting in overwork. Asking for what I need, advocating for myself, and taking time away from work not only make my overall life experience more balanced and fulfilling, but allow me to be a more focused and engaged employee who thrives in my professional life (which in turn is good for my employer and the community we serve, not to mention incredibly satisfying for me). While I can understand the concerns around flexible scheduling and believe strongly that workers in all sectors need to be protected from predatory employers and the dangers of overwork, I’m confident in my ability to manage my work hours while enjoying the flexible schedule that, for me, has been an incredibly powerful tool for getting the most out of my week.