If you’ve ever encountered a computer issue at work, chances are you’ve received this sage advice from an IT professional at some point: Have you tried turning it off and on again? While many people bristle at this too-simple-to-be-helpful reply, it turns out that it actually works a surprisingly high percentage of the time.
Computers and most forms of modern technology weren’t designed to work nonstop without breaks. And neither were our brains. But too many of us find ourselves doing just that.
While work used to primarily happen in the office during set hours, modern technology has helped blur the lines so that many professionals don’t even have official “off hours” anymore. Whether it be in line at the grocery store, your first moments in the morning or on the sidelines of a youth soccer game, many busy leaders find themselves squeezing in work throughout the moments in their personal lives.
On one level, this makes sense. We find ourselves firmly planted in the knowledge economy where many of us deliver our greatest value in a very intangible way. Our ideas, thoughts, strategies, decisions and influence can be generated anywhere, at any time. And given the pace and pressure of today’s world, there is often a sense of urgency and demand that can drive us to deliver more — more effort, more value, more time.
But the truth is that this nonstop running of our neural networks for work purposes can actually cause us to be less productive, engaged and effective. Like any muscle, our brains need recovery time to grow, develop and run effectively. And if we can find ways to give it the breaks it needs, we will see benefits in both our personal and professional lives.
Researchers from Kansas State University found that employees who “unplugged” after leaving work (defined as avoiding work-related activities like projects and checking email) saw increases in their quality of life, health and happiness. They also felt fresher and better recharged when beginning work the following day which can fuel higher productivity and engagement.
One of the keys here is that ability to detach from work during off-work times. That separation allows us to better rest and recover from the stresses of work. It also allows us to be more present and plugged-in to other experiences in our lives.
By now, most of us are familiar with the myths of productive multitasking and the costs of context switching. Bottom line: we are less effective and productive when we are juggling multiple tasks at one time. So think about what that means in the context of unplugging from your work.
Imagine the scene where a busy parent is sitting in the stands of a Little League game, phone in hand as they quickly catch up on some emails and to-dos with their attention trying to serve two masters at the same time. Not only are they being less than productive with the work tasks, but more importantly they are bypassing the interactions and experiences happening around them. They are missing out on memories while sending a not-very-subtle message to those around them about their priorities.
In a misguided effort to add more value in one area (career) they are sabotaging and decreasing value in other important areas of their lives. And to show up as the best versions of ourselves at work, we need to make sure we are leading authentic and balanced lives that take into account all of our priorities, not just one or two. After all, self-leadership always precedes team leadership.
So knowing that staying plugged in to work can cost us, both at home and at the office, here are some ways you can help yourself do a better job of unplugging.
Rather than allowing work to bleed into the rest of your life, set clear boundaries between the two. This will allow you to intentionally shift between the two areas with intention rather than reactively. For example, if you feel like you need to put extra time in after hours to catch up on emails, schedule time that evening to tackle the project with purpose instead of trying to invest the time throughout the evening.
Once you establish the boundary of your “off-time,” you must enforce that commitment starting with yourself. Don’t allow the ding of a new email draw your attention like a Pavlovian dog. Don’t try and squeeze in a couple of quick tasks while preparing dinner. Next, don’t be afraid to communicate those expectations to your team and coworkers. Consider setting up an automatic email reply to let others know when they can expect a response (hint: it’s not immediately).
It can be hard to create the separation you need sometimes, especially in a world where our work is accessible in so many ways. Consider setting up some systems to help you be more successful. For example, consider turning off work email notifications during your off-hours. Without the icons, sounds and beeps telling you that You’ve Got Mail, you’ll be less tempted to check it.
Create separate physical space at home for working to help create that distinction between work life and personal life. If you’re catching yourself checking emails right before bed or when you first wake up, consider tucking your devices into bed outside your bedroom before heading to bed yourself. Keep a notepad or journal handy so that you can easily capture great work ideas when you have them without having to pick up your device of choice.
Throughout our time away from the office, our days are filled with many micro-moments. Stopping at a red light. Waiting in line at the grocery store. A brief pause between dinner and clean-up.
Too often, we find a need to fill these “micro-moments” with something, especially considering most of us have the knowledge of the known world in our palms. Fight this urge. Appreciate the moment for what it is and what you can learn from it. Don’t fill it with responding to work emails or even checking Facebook. Be present and allow yourself the opportunity to just be where you are.
For many of us who are feeling busy and overwhelmed at work, sometimes giving more seems like one of the best ways to get more done. However, that’s not what our brains were designed to do. That solution may work short-term, but it always ends badly in the long run.
Instead, fight that urge and be intentional about finding ways to unplug from our work. That will make you better on the job, off the job and in all areas of your life and leadership.