File this under the law of unintended consequences. Businesses are increasingly using online communication and collaboration apps to help their teams work more efficiently. That’s great. But because these apps allow teams to connect at all times, people have a harder time unplugging from work. That’s not great for the employee’s well-being. Here’s unplugging from work without feeling guilty.
Why You Need to Unplug
Being in work mode around the clock is counterproductive. It doesn’t matter what your personal circumstances are, or how committed you are to your work. Many employees say, “But I don’t have a family, and I love my job (or my business), and I just want to go, go, go.” That action is still a bad strategy — not to schedule regular times to step away from work.
You need to make an effort to give yourself downtime at the end of each workday, on weekends, and especially while you’re on vacation.
Before we jump into strategies for creating guilt-free downtime, let’s review a few reasons why taking time off is necessary — but also, beneficial.
Your Brain Can’t Go, Go, Go Indefinitely.
Entrepreneur Stephan Spencer recently made a similar point. In his article on deep work, Spencer argues that you won’t be successful at work without relaxation. He includes reasons to take the time to focus on areas of your life other than your job. To do your best work you need time with family, friends, and hobbies.
We understand the benefits of striking a healthy balance everywhere, not only in our work performance. The body doesn’t grow stronger and more fit from exercise until it has a chance to rest and recover. The downtime is where muscle building happens.
Can you imagine that there’s a test tomorrow at school, and you’re cramming? You spend the entire day reading, studying, and memorizing facts. Will you perform better if you continue to study through the night, and show up to your test exhausted? What if you stop and get a full night’s sleep? Hint: The brain stores and organizes information from the day, and forms our memories, while we’re sleeping.
Many professionals think that they are proving their dedication and work ethic by showing they’re always working, always available to the team.
The irony is, for knowledge workers whose jobs include mentally challenging and creative tasks — being “on” all the time can actually undermine their performance. Failing to schedule downtime hurts your career over the long run far more than it helps.
To think clearly and develop complex ideas, you need to regularly shut down the workplace apps, stop thinking about your tasks and projects, and give your brain and body a chance to decompress and rest.
Inspiration Often Strikes During Downtime.
Scheduling downtime isn’t just about avoiding risks like turning in poor work and damaging your professional reputation, it’s also about seizing opportunities.
One of the great benefits of unplugging is that downtime is often when your best insights come to you.
Maybe those flashes of inspiration come to you because your brain isn’t entirely occupied with processing your task list or putting out work-related fires. As a result, your creativity is finally able to borrow some of the brain’s resources and generate your most creative ideas.
It’s possible that maybe your muse visits only when it knows you’re able to pay attention. Whatever the reason, an inspired strategy or insight will often hit when you’re doing something—anything—other than working.
How many great ideas have you had in the shower, or just as you were falling asleep at night? For this reason alone, it makes sense to schedule regular times to walk away from work and allow your inner genius to do its thing.
Set Communication Boundaries for Coworkers.
We’ve discussed why you need to schedule regular time away from your professional life to rest and recover. Now let’s talk about how to do it successfully.
The first step will be to develop a system for alerting coworkers when you’re unavailable. Make sure your employees or your coworkers understand what “being off” really means. Here are a few strategies for setting those communication boundaries with your team:
Update Your Status on Your Communication Apps Regularly.
Many of us who use team messaging and collaboration apps to stay connected with coworkers leave our status set to “available” or “online” all the time. One straightforward strategy to carve out downtime. Temporarily step out of the constant communication stream. Switch your status to away or unavailable at the end of your workday.
You can even do this during the day when you need to clear distractions and put all of your focus onto a single project. For those blocks of time, switch your app status to away, or write a custom status such as “in work mode” or “head-down working.”
Give Your Team “One Last Chance” Before You Step Away.
Here’s another excellent way to train your coworkers that when you’re away, you’re away. Let’s say you’re planning to shut down work for the evening at 5:30 pm. You know that you should not feel obligated to check your email or your team chat app every 20 minutes all night.
Send a friendly message to your team at 5:00 pm, letting them know you’re going off-grid for the night in 30 minutes and want to know if anyone needs anything before you head out.
You’ll need to do this only a few times before your team gets the message: If they want something from you, they’d better get to you during the workday. You’ll probably also find some of your coworkers taking a similar approach. Guilt-free downtime is contagious, and you’ll all be better for it.
- Create a Team Time-Off Calendar.
If you don’t already have one, set up a time-off calendar for your team. Add color-coding for time off to your team’s existing calendar. The benefits here are twofold.
First, it allows everyone on the team to see at-a-glance who’s going to be unavailable, and when. This visibility will help your organization better coordinate projects, deadlines, and resources.
Second, when you place your time-away dates on the team calendar, it reinforces the idea that you’re actually going on a break. Until you put your vacation plans in writing for everyone to see, you’re just a member of the team who happens to be in Hawaii, still available to chat and answer work-related questions.
Bonus Tip: Leave Open a Single Emergency-Message Channel.
One reason staying connected can feel like such a burden in today’s modern organizations is that it requires constant monitoring of so many different communication channels. There are task management apps, team chat apps, texts, and of course, email.
You might receive an alert, update, or a direct @mention message through any of these channels. Think ahead if you’re preparing for any amount of downtime. You may be taking the weekend or a planned overseas vacation. One option is to step away without worrying and leave just one channel open to your team–for urgent-only matters.
For example, if you want to keep an eye on a project overnight, let your coworkers know you’ll be responding only to emergencies that @mention you on your team messaging app at a particular time each day.
Set Downtime Rules for Yourself.
Setting communication boundaries with your coworkers is an essential step in protecting your ability to rest, recover, and recharge. But getting your team to respect those boundaries is only half the battle. You also need to respect them yourself.
- Don’t Respond to Non-Urgent Messages While You’re Off.
During your off time, you should only be monitoring a single team communication channel, and responding only to urgent matters.
But there may be times during your vacation or downtime when you won’t mind jumping into a communication thread with your team and offering your thoughts and advice. Having even this seemingly small communication open — is bad. Don’t do it.
First of all, you’ll be failing in your plan to carve out real time away from work—which should include avoiding even simple and mundane work-related tasks. You need to rest your brain so that you can refocus your mind on other things.
When you do this, you train yourself not to take your own scheduled downtime seriously. And you’ll also be showing your team that you’re not serious about your time off. Your team will learn that your chat status doesn’t mean anything, that even when it’s set to “away” or “vacationing,” you’re just as likely to be available.
- Don’t Share Your Brilliant Ideas Until You’re Back.
If an inspired idea hits you after hours, you may be tempted to put it all in an email or a chat message immediately and fire it off to your team. Again, do not do this. You’ll be training your coworkers that you’re still working when you’re “off,” and they’ll fall back into the habit of pinging you with non-emergency requests during your time away.
Instead, hold on to your great ideas until you’re back online. Draft that email, but don’t send it. Or merely jot it on a piece of paper and plan to tell your team about it when you’re back at work.
- Be Disciplined About Staying Unplugged.
In Yaacov Cohen’s post about the value of cutting the cord from your digital world, he suggests the need for an “off the grid” vacation from work. Cohen is right, of course: A large body of scientific and psychological research shows that our mental clarity, creativity, and even our enthusiasm for work improve when we step away from time to time.
But the fact that he had to add “off the grid” underscores how common it is in the digital world for us to stay checked in to work even on our time off. CBS News reported a 2019 study that found 59% of US workers communicated with their teams every day while on vacation.
If you’re regularly communicating with your colleagues during your vacation, you’re not really taking a vacation. Not in the sense I’m advocating for, where you deliberately shift your work status to away and your brain to relaxation-and-recovery mode.
The final suggestion for you is to build up your downtime muscle, to train yourself to become disciplined about making the most of your time away from the office. Start small, with a goal like not checking your email or team messaging apps for an entire weekday evening.
You’ll quickly find that your company didn’t collapse overnight without you. Now go for two nights in a row. Before you know it, you’ll have trained yourself to be fully focused on work while you’re at work, and to enjoy your downtime while you’re away.
Your team will learn, too, that they need to treat both your work time and downtime with equal respect. Oh, and don’t be surprised if your time away from work starts yielding some of the most interesting ideas you’ve ever had.