One of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever gotten was to think of jobs as verbs, rather than nouns. So, for example: I do journalism, rather than I’m a journalist. Or: I do youth education, rather than I’m a teacher.
Yes, it feels like a silly, arbitrary little word swap, and you’d never actually say that at a party. (Imagine how weird you’d come off telling someone, “I cut people open,” rather than, “I’m a surgeon.”) But it is a mental shift that can help to disentangle who you are as a person from how you spend your days to make money for rent and groceries.
That balance is difficult to strike even in normal times. But now the home has become the office for millions of Americans, and working hours bleed into personal hours in ways that, a year into the pandemic, many of us are still struggling with. So it’s more important than ever not to tie your entire identity — and, in particular, your life satisfaction — to the thing you do for money, experts said.
“Work life, generally speaking, you ride a roller coaster,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of the book “Bring Your Brain to Work.” “Not every day is a good day, there are projects you work on that don’t always go well, and if you’re doing anything interesting that has to be the case.”
“If everything you have going on in your life is focused on work, it means your entire life rides the roller coaster,” he said.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
From that moment we’re asked this question, early in many Americans’ childhood, our identity becomes inseparably tied to the thing we do to make money. Whether we actually fulfill those wild dreams is beside the point; we’re conditioned to tie our core identity to a profession.
As we grow into that mind-set, we embrace that a career is a singular force pushing our lives forward, and if we’re lucky enough to be good at what we do, it can be difficult to have perspective, said Alison Green, the founder of the advice blog Ask a Manager and the author of a book of the same name.
“If you’re conscientious and you like what you do, it’s very easy to get your identity all tied up with your job,” she said. “And not just the job itself, but the idea of yourself as someone who’s really good at what you do. That’s a very powerful thing.”
She added: “There is this dark side to it that you don’t really spot until it’s no longer a force for good in your life.”
Minda Harts is the founder of the Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color, and wrote the book “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.” Her approach to work has always been to keep her personal life personal, but the pressure of fitting into an office’s culture can erode such boundaries.
“Many of us culturally have been raised to keep our personal lives in the family,” she said. “But sometimes when you’re working with others who don’t have that same cultural background, they can view that as standoffish.”
Ms. Harts said this was something she experienced during her time in corporate America, but she worked hard to take back her identity.
“It really was just reminding myself that I have a choice, and it doesn’t make me any less of an employee,” she said. “I’m bringing the pieces I want people to engage with,” she said, “and that doesn’t make me any less of an employee.”
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Why bother? What’s the benefit?
Why compartmentalize different parts of our lives, especially when doing so right now is so much effort?
Experts say it’s important to protect yourself from letting problems in one area of your life affect the other areas, especially now that the borders between every aspect of our lives are blurrier than ever. A bad week at work is a drag on your mental health, but if your work is only a part of your identity, and not defining it completely, the overall emotional impact of that bad week is less severe.
“The problem with having your identity tied up with your job is that it’s not fully within your control,” Ms. Green said. “If things start going badly at work, it can affect your mental health in ways that it wouldn’t if you weren’t so deeply invested. So it’s giving work a lot of power over your happiness in ways that can end up hurting you.”
She added that centering your life on a job may even make you act against your own self-interest and happiness, perhaps by working long hours or accepting behavior you normally wouldn’t.
Not only does that compartmentalization help protect yourself from the lows of one area of your life creating lows in another, having space can improve your performance overall, according to Mr. Markman.
“The brain needs a little downtime,” he said. “You can’t sustain concentration. Unless you can get away from the problems you’re trying to solve in your work life, you don’t give your brain a chance to reset and come up with a different way of characterizing what you’re dealing with. So even if your primary goal in life is to be as productive as possible at work, you need some time away to make that happen.”
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be invested in your work or not care about your career and the people you work with. That investment can be an asset, and being passionate about one’s work can help lead to better output. Rather, give that investment a ceiling.
“You’re playing the long game here,” Ms. Green said. “It’s one thing to work into the evening for a few weeks or months, but it’s not sustainable long term. You want to manage your career with an eye toward what you can keep up.”
Where to draw the lines
In the first months of the pandemic, Ms. Green said she heard from many people struggling to separate work life and personal life for the same reason: Everyone at work knows you don’t have anywhere else to be. Whereas before quarantine you could imply a previous commitment, that “out” is off the table.
The solution, according to Ms. Green? “Just start putting the boundaries in place.”
“In a lot of situations you don’t actually need to ask permission,” she said. “People tend to feel like this is a change, and sometimes that’s true, but way more often people realize you can just do it.”
This could mean not answering your phone or email after your workday has ended, or not engaging with a Slack message while you’re taking a 15-minute mental health break during the day. But often, Ms. Green said, “when people just start carving out those boundaries for themselves, they discover it’s fine. Nothing happens, no one even notices.”
Of course, that doesn’t work for every job or company, so if you’re nervous about creating those boundaries, have a conversation with your manager, Ms. Green said. Tell them you want to create a schedule that’s sustainable — and healthy. And even if you bump against resistance in that conversation, at least you had the talk. “Now that we’ve brought to the surface what the expectations are, I can decide, ‘Do I really want this job under these conditions?’”
Also realize, Ms. Harts said, that the identity you choose to bring to work won’t always match with your co-workers.
“When we talk about authenticity in the workplace, you have to realize that my version might mean I don’t want to talk about my personal life, but it doesn’t mean my colleague who does that is more invested in the workplace,” she said. “If we’re encouraging people to bring their authentic self to work, we have to encourage people to leave the parts of themselves they’re not comfortable bringing without being penalized.”
When Ms. Harts faced that contrast in her career, she said it helped her reframe her approach to a career.
“I had to redefine the narrative for myself,” she said. “I couldn’t put other people’s expectations and biases on myself.”
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