I sat in the artificially lit living room, the sun having set many hours earlier. Grabbing the sofa arm, I pulled myself to stand and placed my hands on the small of my aching back, then rubbed my growing stomach. I tapped the screen on my phone: 10:34 p.m.
As I looked around at the scene before me, it was like a curtain was pulled back and full awareness of the ridiculousness of that moment smacked me in the face. I was surrounded by cardboard boxes and bubble wrap, and a row of author trophies lined my coffee table. I was emceeing an author awards ceremony later that week and, as often goes with those sorts of events, we had limited help. That meant I was not only announcing but doing a lot of the grunt work too, like peeling the backs of plaques and attaching them to awards, all while carefully checking the awards list (twice) to ensure we had everything we needed for the event.
It wasn’t ridiculous that I was the emcee—I was excited about the role—and that I was helping. What was ridiculous was that I had put myself in this sort of position countless times.
I worked evenings and weekends regularly.
I had almost no barriers between myself and client requests, saying yes even when it meant it would throw my schedule into a tailspin.
I accepted any “opportunity” because I felt I had to—I was building my business, after all!
But as I stood in that living room that night, I realized something had to change. I couldn’t go on like that. Especially when I was about to become a mom.
How I changed my life
I’d like to say everything changed that day. But the truth is, it took months and years to develop the mindset I have now.
Today, I have solid boundaries around my time and focus. And I’m even experimenting with spaciousness in my schedule—decisions that feel luxurious when I compare my pregnant, depleted, overworked self to the person I am today.
And you know what else has changed? Back then, I was barely scraping past $75,000 per year. Today, I bring in mid-six figures and am on track to hit seven figures within a couple of years.
Back then, I was living in Boise, Idaho, and dreaming of an adventurous life abroad (like I’d had before returning to the US). Today, I live in Portugal with my family of four—and our life truly is an adventure!
Back then, I prided myself on how I could outwork anyone. Today, I can still outwork anyone, but I choose to prioritize my family and my mental health.
Here’s the most important lesson I’ve learned: More time does not always equal more money. Even when it does, the life-cost exchange isn’t worth it. Actually, when you prioritize focused work, say no more often, and take regular breaks, you can live a fuller, more connected life—and make more money too.
So if you’re where I was all those years back, or just looking to further step up your schedule, here are a few things I would suggest implementing right away.
#1 – Set boundaries around emails and messages
For me, this started with nights and weekends. Today, I aim to check email twice per day at around 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Start by deleting the email app on your phone. Turn off your email notifications. If twice per day isn’t reasonable for you, determine an email response window (e.g., 9–12, 1–5) and then select the number of times you’ll check email during the day. If you need to start with four times, or even six, fine—start there. But keep track and pare back when you can.
Most importantly: set an email “on” time. This is a time barrier before which you won’t check your email, no matter what. Mine is 11 a.m. because I spend the first three hours of the day in focused work, and my time barrier also includes no social media and other screen time, including text messages and news.
What works for you? Set the time and stick to it.
#2 – Take Fridays off
“Riiiiight,” you might be thinking if you’re employed. “Like my boss is going to agree to that.”
“Riiiiight,” you might be thinking if you’re self-employed. “Like I can afford that.”
But hear me out. Taking Fridays off doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not working—at least at first. Right now, I am experimenting with taking Fridays off, which means I’m away from my work and into my life. But for many years, I simply protected my Fridays—no meetings, no deadlines, nothing except space for me to work on what I needed to that day.
I often worked on creative projects, like writing blog posts or recording podcast episodes, or I worked on strategic planning or other focused work that I struggled to concentrate on during the week because of my many demands.
If you’re self-employed, I urge you to, right now, implement “no-meeting Fridays.” Protect that space like a mama bear. When clients ask to book a call on Fridays, respectfully say no, and if they need an explanation, let them know why: you protect your time, in part, so you can show up fully and with excellence for them.
If you’re employed, you may not have the flexibility to clear your calendar on Fridays. But what do you have control over? Can you clear your Friday mornings for focused work—even if it’s just one or two hours?
Can you aim to complete other task-y items during the week so you have more spaciousness on Fridays? Can you have an honest conversation with your boss about how you want to show up fully, with your best self, and that your current meeting schedule isn’t working?
If you’re shaking your head no, I encourage you to take a look at your calendar and ask: What do I have control over? Can you wake up earlier to create that focused space that will enable you to enjoy your evenings and weekends? Can you move or consolidate any meetings?
When you make space in your calendar in life, you’ll be amazed at the results. I am! You’ll be more productive (in the healthiest sense of the term), less stressed, and happier—a win all around.
#3 – Take three consecutive weeks off (or more)
If you’re American like me, two-week (working) vacations are the standard. But Europeans take a month or more off. They close their businesses, go to their hometowns, and enjoy stretchy, joyful time together.
When I first observed this pattern, I was curious and, to be honest, taken aback. You just closed your business for two months? You’re spending the entire summer in your hometown? You’re traveling for four weeks—and you’re not working at all?
Now, three years into our residency here in Portugal, I get it. In the past, I have taken plenty of time off, but it was either broken into one-week chunks or I had to take the time because of a big life need (having a baby, moving countries). And even when I had babies, I only took three weeks off before returning to work.
If you’re looking to truly change your mindset and approach to overwork, I challenge you to take three weeks off. That means setting your email away message and, if you have a team or colleague who can help, turning the reins over while you’re away.
I recognize you may not work a job right now that allows three full weeks off, and if not, I challenge you to set that as a goal for yourself. Can you find a new job that supports a more sustainable life?
And I also recognize that you may be a solopreneur or even have a small team, and can’t fathom closing for three weeks. But I can all but promise you, your business will be fine. I’ll even go so far as to say it will grow because you’ll come back engaged, refreshed, and ready to do the best work of your life.
But it doesn’t work if you’re sneaking emails. You have to go all in.
Setting boundaries is powerful. When you protect your space—whether for yourself or your family—you’re saying, “I value my life more than my work.” As an American, I didn’t always believe this. I thought that my value was in my contribution to society. I believed depletion was a badge of honor.
I don’t believe that anymore because I’ve seen what space can do for my life and work.
How about you? What would you add? What changes have you made, or will you make, to take back your life?