Smartphones have made it all but impossible to disconnect from work—even on the weekends. Which is why it’s more important than ever to really, truly take time off.
Three years ago, I found myself on the shotgun seat of a Delica en route to Seal Rocks on my first ever camping trip. As I watched the rolling hills and green fields speed past me out the window, I was overcome by the peace and quiet of the whole experience. I turned to my boyfriend, Steven, a camping veteran, who was diligently driving us to our weekend getaway. I smiled widely at him. It was a perfect moment. So perfect, in fact, that I leaned to grab my phone and take a photo. I reached inside my purse, pulled out my phone and all at once, I was panicked. I had no reception. No bars. Nothing. My whole brain sank into my stomach.
“Hey, Steven… I don’t think I have any reception. Do you?”
Without looking away from the road he said, “Probably not. We would have been out of range for a couple of hours now.”
I couldn’t even answer. How could he be so relaxed about this?! Out of range? What if there is an emergency? What if someone needs me? He smiled back calmly. He could see the panic on my face.
“If someone needs you,” he offered, “ you can’t help them. You’re here camping.” He continued driving.
He was right. No one needed me that weekend. When I turned my phone back on that Monday morning, I had three missed calls and a handful of lukewarm emails. I felt embarrassed. Not only had I completely overreacted to something as simple as being unavailable over a weekend away, but I was unpleasantly surprised about how unnecessary I really was.
For years, I had conditioned myself to be “on” over weekends: answering emails on my phone, and responding to Slack messages. My brain was wired to receive the intermittent rewards of getting work done over breaks.
For some of us, breaking out of that cycle can be really difficult, since the expectations of working over the weekend or being available during breaks is ingrained in our brains as part of the “always on” culture. We are “getting things done” machines and if we don’t, there are 10 people in line waiting to take your job. It’s hard to catch a breath.
There are, thankfully, practical ways of breaking this cycle that won’t break your business. It is incredible how much of it is self-inflicted, so it’s a good idea to start by looking inside.
Is your generosity really neediness in disguise?
The most common culprit for this problem is the “need to be needed.” It is awesome to be generous with your time, but at what point does your generosity turn into neediness? Do you need to be seen being useful to feel like you’re worthy? If you do, you’re not alone. Ask yourself: Are the last words to come out of your mouth when you leave the office on a Friday night, “I’ll be on my mobile. Email if you need me”?
Sure, you want to be responsive and responsible at work. And goodness forbid something awful were to happen while you’re on break. But in my experience, should an actual emergency occur, your colleagues and managers will not be shy to loop you in if your help is needed. The real scary part is feeling out of the loop.
So we often resort to including ourselves in weekend work — whether knowingly or not — to appear necessary. It’s human nature. The good news is that this is a relatively easy cycle to break, once you identify it.
Check your creative metabolism
The second thing to look at is your creative metabolism. This is something I discovered during my recent stint on stress leave. One of the reasons I felt stress was because I felt work accumulated in my inbox so much that it was impossible to get to everything during the week and it ended up spilling over to the weekend. I would watch myself pack up my work bag on a Friday evening and it was like I was moving my office into my house. Of course, the weekend would end up not being enough time to get to the work either, so the cycle would continue.
How did I fix it? The answer is almost too simple to share. I started to examine my creative cycles against my work cycles. It turns out I am way more creative and productive in the evenings, leaving the mornings for more input and passive work. In simpler terms, I’m very slow in the mornings, so any work I had planned for early hours would inevitably spill into the afternoon. That work model was working against me and creating frustration and angst. By the end of the week, only half the work I had planned was actually behind me. Weekends were the only time for me to get stuff done.
This discovery translated to a big switch in my workday and a much more efficient workflow. By starting my days a bit later, and using a couple of hours in the morning to get ready for the day, I felt a surge of energy and creativity in the afternoons. This allowed me to get all my creative work done at the best time for me, rather than wasting time trying to accommodate more “traditional” working hours. I felt better about the work I was producing and I trusted myself more while I was “in the zone” so work would no longer spill over to the weekends.
I don’t want to shock you, but you can turn off notifications on your phone. You can also time them so you get no work notifications during the weekend. But I would go a step further and recommend you get a separate planner—preferably an old-fashioned paper one. It’s a very counterintuitive thing for a woman in tech to do, I know. But I found that having a separate space to map out my weeks and list my To Dos affords me true distance from my work-self during breaks.
The reality is that we all live off our phones, and that obliges us to carry our work-self around with us. If you are in the supermarket and want to check your grocery list on your notes app, you’ll inevitably get a glance of the meeting notes you took earlier that week. If you want to check the time of the dinner party you are heading to in your calendar app, you’ll scroll past the pending meetings you have the following week. It’s difficult to escape work and take your weekends back if work is staring back at you the whole time.
Having a paper planner has helped me create a real tactile line between my work and personal lives. Ultimately, there is no such thing as work-life balance. There is only life. Work is only a part of life, and hopefully a part of life that enhances the other parts. Having a physical reminder that work belongs inside of life has translated into feeling freer to untangle myself from it during my time off. And it’s also a nice thing to keep in my purse.
Recharging is part of the gig
Next time you find yourself leaving for the weekend, check yourself. Are you setting expectations that you are available and on all channels? Are you being true to your creative metabolism and embracing your peak productive times? Are you making yourself crazy with unnecessary deadlines just to get ahead? If you are, remind yourself that recharging is part of work. It’s hard to switch off and recharge. But you owe it to your best work — you cannot pour from an empty jug. You can count on the fact that next time I’m in a Delica, I will be busy enjoying the view.