Tame the 24/7 Beast: Lessons from a Leader on How to Unplug
March 4, 2015 | Business and Careers
When I go on vacation, I check out as much as possible. That’s the point of a vacation, right? I don’t want to be chained to my phone or my tablet all day, every day—especially when I’m taking a much-needed break to rejuvenate.
Not possible, you say? Not practical? What if they need me?
There’s often a false sense of urgency attached to today’s communications, and we’ve brought much of it on ourselves. It makes us feel good to think we’re indispensable or that our opinions are critically important to every issue. But the fact is—in any given week—there are very few things that demand immediate attention. Will the world fall apart if something gets delayed from Thursday to Monday? Probably not. And yet many of us don’t always realize that, and we don’t seem to know how to unplug.
There’s value in learning to step away. In Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, Harvard professor Leslie Perlow studied the impact of disconnecting on a global consulting team that unplugged for a scheduled period of time each week. The results showed:
- Those who unplugged exhibited significantly lower stress levels.
- Job satisfaction jumped from 49 percent to 72 percent.
- 54 percent said they were satisfied with their work/life balance, compared with 38 percent of those who did not unplug.
While I’m not necessarily a fan of forcing people to turn off their smartphones at a scheduled time, I have learned to tame the 24/7 beast with practical steps that help me and my team live more balanced and fulfilled lives—without posing unnecessary risk to the success of our business.
Here’s what I encourage:
1. Separate critical communications. Last year, I went to Peru for 14 days and made it clear to my team that I wasn’t going to check work email while I was gone. Instead, I told them that if they really needed me, they should send a message to my personal email account, and I would commit to checking it once a day. I was still accessible in case there was an issue that required my attention, but I didn’t have to sift through (and feel obligated to reply to) the hundreds of non-critical emails that made their way into my work account each day. Since then, I’ve encouraged my team members to do the same. One recently told me, “You’ve given me the freedom to actually take a vacation. I’m so thankful!”
2. Draft emails any time, but hit “send” only during the workday. Sometimes I choose to work over the weekend. It can be convenient, as it’s quiet at home and I can get a lot accomplished. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want to inundate my team with email over the weekend because they may, in turn, feel obliged to check for and reply to messages. So I often save messages as drafts to send Monday morning, or I use the “delay delivery” function in the email program to schedule the message to be delivered during work time. It’s a practice that allows me to work when it’s convenient for me but doesn’t interfere with my team’s personal time.
3. Create a check-in routine. For my own ease of mind, I like to know that there is nothing at work that needs attention before I go to sleep. So every night, I check my work email at around 9:00 p.m. I’ll do a quick once-over of my inbox, reply to anything I feel is critical, and leave the rest until morning. When I know I’m not missing anything important, I’m free to relax and unwind. Of course, my check-in routine may not work for everyone, but I do think each of us can choose to own how we connect and how we unplug. For me, designating a time to be “on” and a time to be “off” is helpful.
Of course, technology isn’t necessarily the enemy; it’s part of what actually allows us to achieve work/life balance. And for that, I’m grateful. Technology allows us to review a presentation in the dentist’s waiting room just as easily as it allows us to catch up with family via webcam. What we can’t do is allow technology to control our lives—either our professional or our personal lives. (Yes, I’m speaking to all of those who spend more time “liking” your friends’ posts than you actually spend with your friends!) Life is all about balance—and technology can help with balance as long as we learn how to use it wisely.