We invited work into our personal spaces: smartphones became an extension of our hands. Technology connects us and it sometimes seems impossible to escape our offices.
Whether you are an entrepreneur on the brink of burn-out, a newly hired virtual assistant who wants to learn how not to get carried away in its duties, or an exhausted freelance web designer, this article will help you rethink your approach to free-time. This guide is designed for both office workers and people working remotely.
Why do we need to be “out of work” regularly? Even if we work from home, it is the key to happiness and efficiency, we will see that in part 1. In part 2, I will present you a model I developed to find out what has been stopping you from disconnecting efficiently. And in step 3, we will apply this model to find solutions that will suit your situation best. In part 4, I will conclude with practical tips and tools to help you maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Part 1. Motivate yourself to unplug
If your first reaction when someone asks you to unplug is that you have too much to do and not enough time, I want you to understand that working less is necessary to be able to do more. If you work from morning to dawn and think you could not do more in less time, please read this part carefully.
Be more objective: We can only be efficient so much, if you spend a huge amount of time at work or on the same subject, you can easily develop a unilateral or misconstructed approach. Remember the universal “sleep on it”? When you become involved in a company, a project, or a problem it is impossible to see it in an objective manner. Engaging yourself fully in other activities in between working sessions allows you to see your work and problems with fresh eyes. Meanwhile our brain will keep processing the problem unconsciously and allow you to get a fairer and more complete opinion.
Be more focused: You need to be able to manage your time well. You probably already know that your brain can only stay focused for an average of 50 mins, different techniques exist to enhance your focus daily (the Pomodoro technique, the 52”/17” and the pulse and pause for example). But if you include working tasks in the resting periods, you will sacrifice efficiency in the next focused periods. Have you heard of a state of mind called “Flow”? It is the ones that combine efficiency with low-effort and full engagement. In order to attain the flow state of mind in all your activities, you need to be able to disconnect in between them, have the right amount of rest, and feel happiness and balance in your life. That is why being able to unplug will allow you to reach your highest productivity rates.
Furthermore, not being able to disconnect raises stress levels and directly impacts your creativity. You need this creativity to find innovative solutions and make your work easier and more efficient.
Set your limits: You are only human, certain tasks can be done until your body breaks, others until your mind does. We mentioned burnouts but the consequences of work and accumulated stress range from depression and sleep deprivation to Karõshi (Death from overwork in Japanese) and alienation from your friends and family. If you have no time to rest, you cannot be mindful and realize where your limits are. We need time to realize we are tired, otherwise we are at risk to develop long term issues. Being able to unplug acts as a safeguard because it makes us able to see problems rising and have time to find solutions.
You WILL be more efficient at work if you truly unplug between work sessions.
We need to disconnect but it is usually harder than it sounds, why?
Part 2. Discover what stops you from getting out of work
We all relate differently to the work experience, we are more or less involved and rely on different physiological and emotional stressors to maintain our attention and efficiency while at work. In this article, instead of solving what causes discomfort at work, I focus on how to reduce the resulting anxiety.
Let’s first identify what form takes our mental exhaustion to be able to decide later which tool will be the most efficient in our case.
I created a model with 5 different stressful emotional states we feel at work. They are exhausting and we have a hard time shaking them away. Take time to identify which ones you are the most subject to. If it can help, make a list of your activities and associate a score to each.
If you think about your interactions with your friends and loved ones, you might realize they will be closely correlated, because we naturally try to relax during our free time from what stresses us. So I added an example under each state to help you identify which ones you are the most sensitive to.
-Needed: You manage or are a vital part of the team. If you don’t do your work correctly, others will fail or will not be able to continue working.
Managers will often hear from their spouse that they are not really involved at home, friends could tell them they are not truly responsive.
-Emotionally involved: the success of the task is important to you. If you fail, you would be deeply disappointed or even ashamed, you “cannot fail”.
Entrepreneurs who are pouring their hearts in their business might detach themselves emotionally from their family or seem care-free to their friends.
-Controlled/subordinated: You feel like you have little control over how you manage your time, maybe your work is subject to constant scrutiny from your supervisor.
Office workers under a strong hierarchy can be bossing around at home.
-Challenged: You are constantly learning new things or reinventing yourself, your work might require you to be creative or convincing.
Designers and students might want to do nothing more than watching TV shows or playing video games
-Anxious/afraid: You are not sure you can make it in time. You feel frustrated or nervous.
If you always have to be responsive and fast at work, you might become sluggish and untidy at home.
Be aware of your attitude and the responses of your closed ones, we all need social recognition out of the work environment. Try to develop and keep positive relationships, we will see how much we need them to disconnect in the next step.
Once you have identified and characterized all the sources of stress, move on to the next part where I will give you examples of techniques and exercises you can use to rebalance yourself.
Part 3. Rebalance your emotional states
The natural reactions we have observed in the second step are your instinctive ways to resist and take back control over the stress we felt at work. But they are neither efficient nor positive in the long term. Let’s discover what we can do to find peace of mind and truly unplug. For each type of stress you feel, I will give you my own solutions. Yet none will be perfect for you and I invite you to research and discover your own strategies to fight stress in a non-destructive manner.
You feel needed at work: The opposite state is of course freedom. If you feel like you cannot take a leave of absence during the day, you might need to have one every night. It can be closing the door of your room and doing whatever you feel like (as long as it is not work-related) or go jogging without a phone or any way to be reached for some time. Make your partner or family understand you deserve to be left alone, undisturbed. Rediscover the joy of independence.
You are emotionally involved: Work, thankfully, isn’t everything! We NEED to involve ourselves emotionally and in order to escape emotional traps at work, we need to find other things that matter to us. We all have more than one goal in life, it can be simple things we love to do, challenge ourselves, or big projects that are more personal. You can create a to-do list of things you want to do that are not work-related, start small by trying something new 10 or 20 minutes every night and find out what you have been missing. (re-)Discover something you like to do or feel passionate about. You will soon be able to ponder your involvement at work and out of work better.
You feel controlled or micro-managed: it is time to do things your way and share your own feelings. You can try to find an activity that gives you the space to express yourself. It can be a creative activity or a mechanical, productive task. Cooking, painting, DIY, are examples but it can also be interpersonal activities. If you feel comfortable, try teaching something or joining/creating a group related to your personal interests and hobbies.
Your work is really challenging: If you spend your life training, you should be able to do great things easily. Of course, you cannot be the best at everything but you are good at some stuff. Usually, they are the things you find easy to do. Have you ever realized that they were probably hard for many others? You probably find pleasure in discovery, but beware, it is easy to become addicted to knowledge, achievement, and recognition.
Try to use your free time to do activities that don’t require any extra effort on your end, it can be reading a book, organizing stuff, sports, social interactions… you might find back the pleasure of simple, repetitive, or procedural tasks. Try to find back pleasure in activities that are productive or satisfying, but not in a challenging way.
And last, if you are always running against the clock or under stressful conditions, you might be tempted to waste time: do not always play video games or watch Netflix because repeating those activities can be mind-numbing and generate feelings of inadequacy. Try instead to appreciate all the time you have. Activities such as meditation and sports might be a good option as they allow us to feel time flowing in a different manner.
Try to find out what you need to get back into your daily routine to appreciate your break time. Keep Improving your free time to make it more enjoyable, you’ll feel rested, generally happier and it will become easier to stay efficient during your working hours. The best way to approach this process is to have a notebook or an app where you plan and keep track of your daily non-related activities, make sure you observe the effect of your disconnecting techniques and look at it at a regular interval (daily or weekly) because you will need to tune up your strategy to adapt to your current issues and conditions at work.
All those activities might be useless if your free time is always disturbed by work-related issues and thoughts so, in the next part, we will give you some tips and tools to help you get and stay into the right mindset.
Part 4. Tips and Tools to disconnect
Seperate space and tools
Even the most versatile multitasker will not be able to switch in and out of work easily. The first step to unplug is to create a time during which you are not working. Make sure you set up ground rules. Decide on an hour or a period and keep to it. During this time, you cannot do any work activity. Don’t fool yourself by working with different tools, such as thinking, writing notes, or reading books related to professional issues during that time.
Cognitive science teaches us that we naturally associate words or ideas with counterparts. This is the way our brain is wired in order for us to operate more efficiently. If I talk about pepper, most of you will also think about salt.
This is why it is so important to create a separate space to work in, because being in front of the same computer or using the same tools you will be physiologically brought back to work issues and processes.
Where is work? It is usually a desk, a phone, or a computer. For remote workers and people using the same tools for leisure activities as well as work, the border doesn’t always truly exist. Try to establish differences.
This computer, this desk, this phone is for work, these ones for free time, family time. When out of work, don’t check your email. When you are in your work environment, avoid Facebook, Youtube, and Candy Crush. If you do so, you will actually be both more efficient at work and more easily disconnected from it.
Tip: For truly resourcing short break-time at work, make sure you get out of your work station, don’t bring work issues with you, and turn off phone notifications so that you can avoid unnecessary interruptions.
Don’t impose on yourself what you wouldn’t impose on others.
It is probably quite hard to see ourselves objectively, but a quick workaround can be to wonder what we would tell someone in our situation to do if we were their manager or coworker. Most of the time, you will not expect your employees to work overtime or exhaust themselves on a task. Don’t wonder if it is best for your own image, what people would think of you, but instead imagine what you’d advice to a third person.
Setup your Devices to allow for work-free time
If you cannot dispose of separate tools to work, for example if you are a virtual assistant or a freelance designer, then there are specific solutions you can put into place to help you disconnect.
-Different User on your Operating system: All versions of windows and Mac OS offer you the possibility to have different usernames on the same computer. You can set up a username for work and one for your personal use. You can use all the software but each will have their own access to files and data. Avoid connecting personal accounts when using the work username and reciprocatively. This is the most efficient way if you have a hard time self-managing because it won’t be possible for you to switch between personal and professional use without extra effort.
-Different tools, different use. For internet browsing, mail checking, and most of the other activities there are multiple software available. For example, you differentiate your browsing activities between Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, only logging in your work accounts on one and personal accounts on the other, then only using one of the software at a time. For emails, you can use Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird for example. Don’t forget to close all software not related to your current activities and turn off email and skype notifications when not needed so you regain control of your attention.
-No work notifications: As of today, there is no way to create a fully separated workspace on mobile so it will remain quite hard for the time being to pick what kind of notifications you would like to receive at what time. Yet there is the “Do Not Disturb” mode on android, when turned on your phone, it will only relay the notifications set as “Priority” in your settings. Set it up once with only the non-work apps set as a priority to be able to temporarily disconnect your from work. On iPhone, the do not disturb will not allow you to select which notification you would like to see appearing. But you will also be able to manage automatic scheduled pauses thanks to their Bedtime feature.
-Time and applications control: Android and Apple both natively allow you to control your usage of apps. Many software and time management apps allow you to control access to certain apps or limit their use.
-Turning off your phone and your computer: radical but efficient.
Combining those tips with the stress releasing activities seen in part 3 will allow you to maintain a healthy and resourcing schedule.
Mental and physical health is key to your efficiency at work. As we have seen throughout this article we need to disconnect, find out where the stress comes from, release it, and create some space for self-improvement and leisure in order to have a sustainable work-life balance. I hope you could find some helpful keys to self-improvement in this article. If you still feel overwhelmed by stress and overwork, please consider seeking professional help.