Remember when you could fairly easily disappear? When I was a kid we’d go for long bike rides, and our parents couldn’t get a hold of us until we got home – and didn’t expect to. Even during residency, I carried a pager, but I had to keep a quarter taped to the back so if I got a page outside the hospital I could use a pay phone. Immediate connectivity was not part of the picture.
There are some real advantages to cell phones and other means of constant communication, but I don’t think it’s a secret that there are serious problems as well. According to several studies, a large majority of American workers check email in off hours and on vacation. Among the effects are decreased job satisfaction, personal and family stress, and burnout. Not exactly what we aim for with our value of health. What can we do to disconnect from time to time? Some companies, beginning to recognize the downside of constant connectivity, are encouraging employees to refrain from email away from work, and implementing policies to reduce the volume of electronic communications in off hours. But as individuals we can take the initiative in reaching a healthier harmony between our work and non-work lives. While I am no expert, I am pretty satisfied with my work-life balance, and here are a few things I’ve tried:
1. Find, and schedule, leisure activities that require you to unplug. Some of mine are exercising, playing music, and cooking. It’s hard to check email or respond to texts when blowing a horn or stirring a risotto. One caveat: many of us like to listen to music when working out, but if you’re using your phone as an MP3 player, you run the risk of an interruption. Try putting the phone on airplane mode – iTunes yes, text messages no.
2. I’m a fanatic about to-do lists, both at work and at home. I list my leisure activities on here right along with the chores. When things are particularly hectic, I put “relax” on the list. It may sound like an oxymoron, but it works.
3. Let yourself be OK with not being available all the time. I try to put some reasonable limits on the number of hours a day I’m available for non-emergencies. If I’ve been in the office for 11 or 12 hours, I try hard not to do email after that. If I have other things I need to do on my computer or tablet at home, I’ll turn off Outlook. When I do look at email in the evening – and I do, if the work day was shorter, or there’s something pressing going on I need to keep an eye out for – I have become pretty disciplined about what I will respond to. Unless it’s something that truly can’t wait until morning (which is frankly rare), I save it until the next day. Responding to email at 10:30 in the evening only encourages people to send you more of them.
4. When going on vacation for a week, it can be really tempting to just check the email to see if anything important came through. Next thing you know, you’re reading all 200 messages that came in the day before to find the important ones, and responding to them. I set up a separate email account that only my assistant knows. When I’m away, she knows that if someone really, really, really needs to get me, she can send a message to that account. I can easily see if there are any messages in there (so far there have never been any), and blissfully ignore the regular accounts until I get back. If you can’t be disciplined enough to do that, go someplace without Internet or cell phone coverage. (West Virginia is great for that!)
To avoid the “but there will be 2500 messages waiting when I get back and I’ll never get through them all so I better keep up” trap, schedule 2 hours when you get back to go through the backlog. It never takes longer than that, since most of the messages are either junk in the first place, or will have been taken care of by the time you’re back. One trick is to sort by subject, and start with the latest message in the thread. You can probably read only the last one and delete the rest without opening.
5. If you are away from the office now and reading this, turn off your device, and go for a walk. Without your phone.