Here’s a simple way to improve your work/life boundaries

Critical goals still unconquered at the day’s end are the path to a spoiled evening, according to new research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. But thankfully the paper outlines an effective tactic we can take to minimise their impact.

We all know our worklife can disrupt our free time by supplying unwanted thoughts that pop up when we should be relaxing. But what’s doing the popping: Concerns about pay, whether to bring Christmas cards in, flashbacks to spreadsheets? Severe events such as bullying can certainly cast a shadow beyond working hours. But Ball State University’s Brandon Smit has identified a more common culprit – uncompleted goals.

Taking his inspiration from classic lab studies showing that uncompleted goals are particularly likely to linger in mind, Smit surveyed 103 employed people, asking them to report which goals had been ticked off and which unfinished at the close of each day, and then just before bed to report on how much these goals had occupied their thoughts that evening. As you might expect, the incomplete goals intruded more, unless they had been rated as fairly unimportant. This effect applied only participants who reported a higher level of job involvement; those uninvested were immune.

This is no great surprise, but what can we do about it? In one sense it is advantageous for our minds to keep uncompleted goals “live” in our system, that way they are easily triggered which makes sure we don’t forget them. The trouble is, when a TV advert references “limited time offers” or “customer service”, these goals force themselves into mind when we’re unable or don’t want to act on them.

To help prevent this, Smit asked a subset of his participants, once they’d described their incomplete goals, to clearly plan where, when and how they would tackle each one, for example: ‘‘I will go into work and start at 10:00 AM in a call center in my office. Log into my computer and call customers back…” By specifying the context for action, this helped the high-involved participants to put the goals out of mind during off-work hours, and as a result their uncompleted goals produced fewer intrusions, almost as if they had the same status as completed goals. Data from a simple measure of work detachment also suggested that, using Smit’s strategy, the participants found it easier to let go of work in general.

All in all, then, fretting about unfinished goals appears to be one piece of the work-life conflict puzzle, but how big a piece it is remains to be seen. Aside from the specific effect of the planning intervention on detachment, there was actually no relationship between the number of goal-related interruptions participants reported experiencing and their overall levels of work detachment. This is perhaps because unmeasured factors are doing hidden work: take a project review meeting, for instance. This can raise many questions (Do I need to raise my game? Am I being lined up for that promotion?) that may occupy a worker’s mind during his or her leisure time, even though such meetings tend to happen after important goals have already been completed. This suggests we need to gather a more holistic picture of work-life conflict, involving goals, people issues and existential concerns.

That said, this research does offer helpful insights for under-pressure professionals. While switching off work phones and leaving our briefcase at the office may be useful in developing work-life boundaries, this study reminds us that our heads will still carry work memories with us, ready to trigger. The solution tested here by Smits resembles the “open loop” concept popularised by management consultant Dave Allen (an open loop is anything that pulls at your attention when it shouldn’t). The implication is that if you capture and schedule your work activities, you’ll be more likely to find some much needed peace during downtime.


Smit, B. (2015). Successfully leaving work at work: The self-regulatory underpinnings of psychological detachment Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/joop.12137

further reading
When Korea imposed a limit on working hours, did it make people happier?
How do male scientists balance the demands of work and family?
Work/Life Separation Is Impossible. Here’s How to Deal with It

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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