If you want your New Year’s resolution to stick, experts say, make it specific and achievable. But, because so many aspects of our careers are out of our control, it’s easier to apply that rule to personal-life goals than to professional ones. You can’t get a promotion, a raise, or new job by dint of hard work and determination alone. Your boss, or your future boss, has to be on board too. And outcomes sometimes have little to do with you and your merits. Resolving to change something that isn’t within your control is a great way to drive yourself crazy.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t commit to improving your career, and you can certainly come up with an achievable resolution related to your professional goals. (For instance, if you’re looking to change jobs, you could resolve to apply for one new job every week.) But if you’d like to improve your productivity and enjoy your work more, I have a New Year’s suggestion for you: Resolve to work less. Specifically, stop working when you’re not at the office.
Before the rise of networked computing, this wasn’t a challenge for most people. But now that work materials are increasingly in the cloud, it’s easy to work from anywhere at any time—and, unless you’re preternaturally disciplined, you’ve probably succumbed to the temptation to respond to a work email or finish a memo during your downtime. I have a habit of idly checking my work email when I’m in line at the grocery store or waiting on a friend, simply because I’m already logged into my work account on my iPhone.
In some high-pressure work environments, staying logged in 24/7 is an explicit job expectation. But many of us let our work bleed into the rest of our lives simply because we can, not because we have to. Either way, endless workdays are bad for employers and employees alike. Logging long hours at the office is counterproductive, leading to lower-quality work, impaired communication skills, more mistakes, and health problems that can affect productivity. Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review’s Sarah Green Carmichael summarized the body of research showing that overwork has a negative effect on output, and that requiring people to take time off makes them more productive while they’re at work. The evidence suggests that putting strict limits on your work hours won’t just help you enjoy your leisure time—it will also improve your work.
Francesca Christie, a political campaign worker in Pennsylvania and Maryland, says the best New Year’s resolution she’s ever made was to ignore work obligations after the workday and devote her evenings to reading books and learning a second language. That proved helpful during work hours. “I work in a field where I have to keep up with local and national events, and I have to talk to a wide cross-section of constituents,” she told me in an email. “So reading books/stories that shed more light on people’s socio-economic, political and religious backgrounds is important, and so is communicating with them.” But her new hobbies helped her out in social settings, too: “I don’t have to worry about being a dreadful party guest.”
That’s what makes saving work for work hours a great New Year’s resolution: It’s immediately rewarding. Resolutions like quitting smoking or cutting back on sugar are unpleasant to keep, which is why people tend to break them. Cutting back on work feels good once you get past the hurdle of trying to instill a new habit.
It helps to have alternative activities—like Christie’s reading and language lessons—to tear you away from your email at the end of the day. As psychologist Art Markman wrote in a piece called “How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions” in Time, “You first have to focus on positive goals rather than negative ones. A positive goal is an action you want to perform; a negative goal is something you want to stop doing.” So if you’re trying to end your workday at 6 p.m., sign up for a yoga class that starts at 6:30 or make after-work plans with friends. At the very least, set an alarm to remind you to leave the office at a predetermined time, and if you can’t bring yourself to delete your work email from your phone altogether, make a point of disabling your account as you’re walking out of the office. And if you work from home, resolve not to work except during predetermined work hours.
As with all resolutions, when you’re trying to cut back on work it helps to have other people’s support. Last year, my colleague Mark Joseph Stern resolved not to do any work after 9 p.m.—and he stuck to it the whole year, with some backhanded help from his significant other. “My boyfriend enforced this resolution by accusing me of not loving him whenever I opened my laptop after 9,” Stern told me. “Eventually I developed a Pavlovian aversion to after-hours work.” If you have a loved one who’s willing to wrest your smartphone out of your hand and throw it across the room when you try to sneak a glance during dinner, enlist them to help you attain your goal.
Stern’s no-work-after-9 resolution is both a success story and a cautionary tale. Although he kept the resolution for the entirety of 2015, he also learned an important lesson about himself: “It turns out I am most productive between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” he says. This New Year’s, Stern has decided to embrace his circadian rhythms: “I am going to let this resolution sunset, and in 2016 I will become a night owl again.” Which is a good reminder that resolutions work best when they’re rooted in self-knowledge. A limited work schedule is a beautiful thing, but a limited work schedule that’s tailored to your strengths and weaknesses is even better.