It’s Friday night, you’re home from work, glass of wine poured, and you decide to glance at your phone.
You read an email from a colleague.
There’s a problem.
Nothing can be done about it in this moment, but because you looked, the rest of your evening (and most of Saturday and some of Sunday) is spent thinking about the problem.
Hear that? It’s the sound of work gobbling up another one of your weekends.
It’s your weekend – but because you glanced at your work email – it’s now owned by your job.
Even if you are lucky enough to have work you love, you still need a break from it.
Downtime is a key part of maintaining good physical and mental health.
Yet we get so little time off due to the ease with which we can dip into work anytime, anywhere via our screens.
Only we aren’t simply dipping in, because once you’ve seen that problem, it can hijack your mind for the entire evening, weekend or vacation time.
Some companies and countries have established rules for email after work hours. For everyone else, we must build our own boundaries.
Decide what expectations you want to set
You set your colleagues’ and your managers’ expectations.
If you read and reply to emails late one evening or while you’re on vacation, the people you work with will assume you’ll do it again, and again, and again…
Being flexible for your work is part of most job requirements but being constantly available is dangerous for your health.
You set the expectations of those you work with about what your behavior will be. Decide what’s critical; and make everything else wait.
Learn to love your out-of-office
Make your out-of-office reply your new best friend. Use it every evening. Set it to say that you won’t be reading or replying to anything until after X time in the morning.
Create a polite, clear reply – maybe add a dash of humor if it’s appropriate at your place of work. For example, “I am now out of the office. I will not be reading or replying to emails until 8am tomorrow. I’m going home to walk my dog, eat dinner, and get a good night’s rest. I look forward to working with you tomorrow.”
Once you set your out-of-office reply, you must stick to it. If you read and reply to email after it’s been set, in future your colleagues will know to ignore what it says.
Avoid stumbling into the office by mistake
Often, we stumble on a work email when we’re on the phone looking at something else. We use our phones for so much these days that it’s easily done.
To avoid this, designate your work watershed time for your evenings and shut off work emails from that time on.
Turn off work emails on weekends and vacations too. If you can’t manage an entire weekend or vacation, then designate specific chunks of time when you won’t check in with work.
But be careful, remember that simply looking at emails can create a work ear worm that lasts for the duration of your time off.
Hide your phone
Your phone is an attention trap, purposely designed to lure you in. Willpower alone will not be enough to fend off temptation, so pick a time every evening when you will put your phone out of sight.
Let’s say you decide 8:30pm. At that time, stick your phone in a drawer.
If you know you can’t stop yourself from peeking, have someone else in your home hide your phone from you. Just make sure they’re around in the morning to tell you where it is.
You may want to use your phone for things other than work after your work watershed, but fully-detached downtime is scientifically proven to be beneficial for your brain and your body, so why not just put the phone (and other digital devices) away altogether for the night?
Buy an alarm clock
If you use your phone as your alarm clock – stop it. Buy yourself an alarm clock.
Never ever take your phone into your bedroom.
Phones and other digital devices are big sleep disrupters. So, let your bedroom be your sanctuary away from screens of any kind.
Having downtime before you go to sleep will help you sleep better. It also will allow you to give your brain a chance to wake up in the morning without being instantly occupied by a work problem or the day’s headlines.
Don’t worry, the information avalanche will still be there when you get out of bed to find your phone again.
What if there’s an emergency?
There are some people who have jobs that require them to be available after work hours in case of an emergency. Those people know who they are, and this is not about them.
For everyone else, if there is an emergency, give your colleagues permission to call you. Set that expectation in advance. (In the evening, you can still put your phone out of sight, just put it where you can hear it if someone’s calling.)
If someone is emailing or texting you about an emergency, it isn’t a problem that requires your immediate involvement. Think about it, when you need to reach someone in an emergency, do you sit down to write them an email?
Be clear about what you want
When you’re off work and you want to look at your phone, be clear about what you want before you start looking. If you’re sitting on the beach on your vacation and you’re about to glance at your phone, are you looking for a restaurant for dinner or do you want to see what’s happening at work?
If you only want to see what the weather is for tomorrow, then only look at that. Don’t allow a harmless glance at the weather be an excuse for you to go down the work rabbit hole.
Your attention is a resource
For many of us, work is an insatiable attention grabber and our phones are a handy facilitator.
Remember that your attention is a resource, just like your time and your money. If you spend your attention on work when it’s not work time, you’ll have less attention to spend on everything else.