How setting limits around work sessions teaches us and makes us better workers
It’s a Friday at 5 p.m. and you’ve only just started tackling the work you now realize you should have been focused on all week long. But the work day is, theoretically, over. You’ve promised to meet a friend for happy hour. You have kids you needed to pick up five minutes ago. You are out of juice from a long week. Yet something still keeps you from thinking you’ve done enough to call it a day.
Here is my advice: Call it a day anyway.
Whether the work of today entails doing the dishes, grading school papers or preparing a presentation, there will come a time when you need to stop doing it and move on to something else. Maybe a child will wake up and interrupt you. Or you will break a promise by not showing up somewhere on time. This need to move on should not be a surprise. Yet many of us live each day like it is. We squander the time we intended to spend on a task being distracted by lesser things. Then, we let the work bleed into margins we really wanted to give to something else.
This is why you need a hard stop—an appointed time for each major task or each day of work—when you will say, “That’s enough for now,” and walk away, even if it’s not as done as you’d like. Here’s why:
- You are a human. You have limits. You cannot work around the clock, ignoring needs for rest and restorative activities. You are not God, and living like it is not sustainable. It will only bring you face-to-face with your limitations. Instead of waiting for a crisis to show you what those limits are, try pulling on the reins and living within them now. You just might find that the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6).
- You will do better work. This concept comes from the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, and I’ve found it to be true. A hard stop—knowing you will, no matter what, quit at quitting time—can actually spur you to make better use of the time you do have, from start to finish. Knowing that you can’t creep over that end-of-task line requires you to better plan your day around it. Instead of frittering away the morning on email, knowing you must complete the task by a certain time keeps you focused on what matters most. I often ask myself, “What is the thing that, at the end of the day, I’ll most wish I’d done now?” It’s almost never, “check email.” It’s usually, “Start the thing I’ve been procrastinating on but know needs to be done today.” Having a hard stop for the day, and for various tasks throughout, keeps me accountable to those goals.
- You will enjoy your work more. We were made for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). When we take steps to help us focus on the work in front of us—and do it well—it adds to our enjoyment of the work and to our worship of God through it. Newport talks in his book about the particular joy of doing deep work, work which requires and uses your full attention. Our age of distraction has stolen this from many of us, but having a hard stop is a concrete step toward regaining the focus you need to start and finish a task well—with joy. As the preacher writes in Ecclesiastes 2:24, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and enjoy his work. I have also seen that this is from the hand of God.”
- You will have more time for other things you enjoy. Having a hard stop recognizes that there is good work to do, but it is not all there is to do. Stopping at a certain time or after a certain task (use timers!) provides a prompt to begin the other things we truly want to do. This could mean wrapping up the dishes quickly—and ignoring the laundry until tomorrow—to spend time with a spouse or children. It could look like closing the laptop and enjoying a few pages of a book before bed or a call with a friend, even if there is more work that could be done. Make a commitment to your calendar—and to other people—that the work will end and other good things will begin. (Bonus: This will, overtime, help you make more of the time you have allotted for work, too.)
Creating and keeping a hard stop often begins as a step of faith. Will I really be able to get enough done? What if I don’t? Having a hard stop has taught me to measure my days by different questions. Was I faithful to the work of today? is often a better measure of success than Did I cross everything off my to-do list? Perhaps our to-do list or our unspoken expectations aren’t reasonable; having a hard stop can help us recognize that and adjust accordingly.
But, most of all, having a hard stop recalibrates us to reality: our work is good, but it is not ultimate. The gospel tells us that the most urgent work of today—the work of our salvation—was accomplished for us, not by us. So, whether we clock out right now or carry on, we can rest in Christ’s finished work, allowing it to fuel each hour of our own.