Before smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity oozed into the fabric of daily life, there was a time when the end of the work day was not only defined but finite. With the exception of doctors, for whom “emergencies” constituted bona fide life or death situations, virtually no one was accessible outside normal office hours.
However, with the advent of communication and social tools intended to save time and improve productivity, this new always-on, infinitely reachable paradigm has infiltrated our personal lives–to the point of becoming a burden in many ways. In a new industry survey of IT users, 82 percent of workers admitted they stay connected in the evenings, and the majority do so even during vacation time and while in bed. The notion of being “off the clock” has clearly disappeared for the vast majority of workers.
Yaacov Cohen is co-founder and CEO of harmon.ie, formerly called Mainsoft. Prior to joining harmoni.e, he served as a Software Engineer at the Israeli Navy Computer Center. Yaacov graduated Cum Laude from the Technion – Israeli Institute of Technology with a B.S. degree in Computer Engineering. You can follow Yaacov at @yaacovc.
Regaining control of your life – and your sanity – requires setting boundaries between work and personal time and managing communications expectations. This can be tough, especially when not everyone at the office or at home is on the same page, but it’s not impossible. It helps to begin with an understanding of just how critically important “downtime” is to your mental well-being and the fact that, despite the perceived benefits of multi-tasking, setting clearly defined boundaries can actually save you more time, improve your productivity and even enhance your creativity.
If you’ve struggled to cut the cord without fear of severing ties, here are six tips to help you reclaim your sanity:
Get Over the Instant Gratification
In many ways, constant connectivity is about instant gratification: it feels good to check your email and find something new there (someone thought to include you!), and there is some anxiety about being left out of the loop and feeling left behind. As addictive as instant gratification can be, moving past it is crucial. When you’re off duty, the newest message may seem urgent because it makes you feel needed. But is it really that pressing?
Rather than relying on the positive reinforcement associated with instant gratification, identify and substitute that feeling with something positive associated with getting your high priority work done–such as spending time with your family or kicking back on the sofa to unwind after hours.
Manage “Emergencies” and Expectations
One of the biggest challenges most of us face in coping with constant communications is that, in the mind of the message sender, everything is an emergency. But, as the adage goes, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Not every message demands an urgent response, especially when that email or IM comes in when you’re on vacation, having dinner with the family or sleeping.
It’s crucial to lay some ground rules for what actually constitutes an emergency and what can to wait until you get back to the office. Certainly, your boss may expect that he or she can always reach you on your mobile, whether you’ve just stepped out of the office for lunch or you’re on the beach with your family. Separation of work and personal time is not typically a policy that management has thought about, and it requires a formal approach.
One of the biggest challenges most of us face in coping with constant communications is that, in the mind of the message sender, everything is an emergency. But, as the adage goes, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
Be proactive and create your own written communications policy that applies to both your subordinates and supervisors. This will not only help establish expectations at the office but also provide you with a formal support structure should you feel tempted to give in and answer a call “just this once.” Inconsistency tends to confuse the people you need to work with. If necessary, call a meeting to discuss how the policy can be implemented. No doubt others in the office will be relieved to have these clearly defined expectations.
Take an “Off the Grid” Vacation
Being “always on” can be incredibly, yet quietly, exhausting: lack of sleep and the need to feel always prepared to spring into action in response to an email, social update or IM can really wear you down, and you may not even realize it. Taking time off from with a complete separation from the office is necessary to refresh your body, mind and spirit. But, doing so requires cooperation and mutual understanding between you and your boss.
First, you must be willing to take a sabbatical from your digital devices –set times when you will be “off the grid” and make the commitment to turn everything off. Cut the cord completely, or at a minimum sever your business communications, if you want a vacation to be more than just a change of scenery from your normal workplace.
Second, your manager or boss must agree that, while you’re out of the office, especially if you’re on vacation, that means no work. While it can be difficult for some companies to understand and agree to this degree of disconnection, many are finding that it’s simply poor business strategy to deprive employees of time to relax. Impress upon your boss and colleagues the fact that R&R can improve mental sharpness, focus, clarity and creativity, which can dramatically improve your job performance. Furthermore, respecting employees’ time off also makes them more willing to work — employees feel more appreciated and less like they’re being abused or taken for granted.
Get Your Family on Board
As a general rule, etiquette demands that if someone has taken time out of their day to spend with you – whether in a meeting or in a personal situation – you owe them the courtesy of your full attention.
Just as with your employer, it’s important to clarify expectations with family members. For some, relationships may actually suffer because one partner is spending “home” time working. On the other hand, sometimes family members aren’t respectful of work boundaries and will contact you regularly during work time. Establish parameters around what each family member needs in terms of time and communications to set clear boundaries– and then defend them. It’s a balance that must be managed on both sides.
Re-Introduce Old School Etiquette
There’s a reason grandparents and other elderly relatives bristle or are offended if you take a phone call at the dinner table. As a general rule, etiquette demands that if someone has taken time out of their day to spend with you – whether in a meeting or in a personal situation – you owe them the courtesy of your full attention.
In today’s society, however, it’s not uncommon for people to pull out their cell phones and other electronic devices when they should be focusing on the person in front of them. In fact, according to the same study, two out of three people report doing so in meetings. However, refusing to do so can make your work and you time much more manageable. It also eliminates the risk of abusing other people’s time by not lending your undivided attention to them.
Revisit Your Personal Communications Policy Frequently
As important as it is to set forth guidelines for communication expectations, it’s just as important to revisit and revise them as situations change. At various stages of your life and career, your accessibility needs at work and at home may change. A new mom must have the freedom to take calls from her sitter or pediatrician at work, for example, while the telecommuting worker three time zones away may need to be more flexible with his or her before and after hours time. As is the case with many policies, it should be a dynamic document: don’t assume what was perfect two years ago will always apply.
But, by taking the step to create guidelines for how to balance the various facets of your life -and sticking to the rules you’ve created – it is possible to re-draw the boundaries between work and personal time and stop the insanity of always-on communications.
Take Control to Regain Clarity, Balance
The reality is that, in many situations it’s impossible to draw a hard and fast line between on-duty and after-hours connectivity. It’s inevitable that situations will arise that demand attention, even when work is supposed to be the furthest thing from your mind. And, the same is true with your family and anything else that’s important in life.
But, by taking the step to create guidelines for how to balance the various facets of your life -and sticking to the rules you’ve created – it is possible to re-draw the boundaries between work and personal time and stop the insanity of always-on communications. As is the case with changing any bad habit, it takes dedication, self-discipline and practice to resist the urge to jump at every beep and buzz on your mobile device. Sometimes change can be uncomfortable at first, and you may feel a bit out of sorts while you’re out of touch. But, take heart: with a little time and perseverance, you will soon find incredible peace of mind and liberation that comes with the power of seizing back control of your time and attention.
Scissors photo by Zechariah Judy