One of the most interesting things I’ve seen come out of the pandemic working from home phenomenon is that our struggles with disconnecting from work have heightened.
Prior to the pandemic, most of my clients admit to feeling like chickens running around with their heads cut off half of the time going from soccer games to PTA meetings to client board meetings to practice group meetings to being screamed at on the phone by angry clients and partners….They were constantly running around juggling 10,000 different things but there was some semblance disconnection. By “disconnection” I mean the time and energy it took to actually get from one of these places to the next. Even though it felt like we were running around like mad women most of the time, there were periods of space between those emergencies — time wasted in the kitchenette talking up a colleague, hopping onto the elevator to grab a quick lunch or coffee, actually walking (or even driving!) from meeting to meeting. There was a transitional moment or moments (if we were lucky)…not that we appreciated them at the time.
What I’m seeing now with my clients is that the time it took to transition from one of those things to the next whether it was the five minutes you spent in the car or the five minutes you spent walking from meeting to meeting, there was breathing space available to us.
Little did we know how valuable that time actually was.
For many of us who have been working from home for the past 30+ months, we are finding that those transition periods have completely disappeared. There is no opportunity to clear our heads or return text messages walking from meeting to meeting. There are no 15-minute breaks to walk outside (READ: breathe fresh air) and go pick up something for lunch. No more chit chatting with your girlfriend at the coffee bar. Instead, we click from meeting to meeting without breaks and without a moment to catch our breaths.
In this remote work environment, we have conditioned ourselves to be 100% connected with our work and our clients 100% of the time. Keeping office hours seems unusual given that our office is now our homes where we spend 100% of our time.
In a pre-pandemic world, many of my clients struggled to disconnect when they were home. They had that nagging itch to check their email every time they sat down with their partners to watch a movie. While they were waiting for the pasta to boil and cooking dinner, they would absentmindedly scroll through their emails to see what was happening. We did these things automatically and without thinking. But now it seems the desire to check in and remain connected has become even more extreme as expectations around our availability have changed.
How, in a world where our homes are now our offices, do we find space to breathe?
I recently had a client who was struggling with this very same thing and wanted to spend some time learning how to disconnect. She wanted to be able to step away from her computer for periods of time to have lunch, go for a walk, turn over the laundry, or simply take a break. She was craving those small pleasures that we all overlooked when life was in person. Who knew that the 20-minute commute into the office would now be seen as a luxurious moment of peace?!
In a digital world, boundaries have become essential.
The primary struggle as I see it is how to best communicate those boundaries when people are not actually seeing whether you are in your office or away. While we can implement certain strategies like setting clear office hours and communicating those to your team, over utilizing out-of-office messaging (no matter who it annoys!), and updating your status on digital messaging platforms, the real work to disconnect is internal. I can give my clients all sorts of tools to implement better boundaries at work and to seek some separation from their professional lives, but if they’re not doing their own inner work, none of the tools that I offer will work.
To illustrate this point, I asked my client to start conducting a simple experiment. First and foremost I asked her to set clear office hours that she would commit to honoring every day. When people called her outside of those office hours she wouldn’t answer — in the same way we didn’t answer our office phones after hours while driving the car pool. We also established a schedule for checking her email. We agreed upon using a timer on her phone to remind her every two hours to check her email. In between those time frames of checking her email, she was free to focus on research and actual projects on her plate. She was to close all email platforms during those two hours. Last, I asked her to start paying closer attention to how much this whole set up freaked her out. Specifically, I asked her to write down all of the nasty thoughts and worst case scenarios playing out in her head as we implemented this plan.
Someone is going to be mad at me. I’m going to miss something. Someone is looking for me. People are going to think I’m not available. I’m going to get reprimanded. If I remain unavailable I’m going to get fired.
While it’s certainly possible that some of those wild scenarios could have become reality, it was also equally possible that none of them would happen. Is it really unacceptable to be away from your email for two hours? We all go to the doctor. We all have continuing education requirements. When life was in person we would often attend 2-hour lunches or meetings. Why is it that our brains are OK with being absent for blocks of time in those scenarios but not OK with us doing it to actually do the job we are being paid for? Because we allow all of those nasty thoughts to carry such weight that it compels us to run to our emails every 30 seconds to confirm that the sky is not, in fact, falling.
If this sounds familiar. Do this. For your sanity and for the good of your long-term career.
The panic that this plan elicited in my client and the discomfort that she experienced as she stepped away from her email for short periods of time really brought to the forefront of her awareness what a critical problem this had become. How checking her email had almost become an obsessive addiction to confirm that she wasn’t messing up. To assuage her concerns that people were upset with her. Now that she had some space, she could see how toxic her relationship with connectedness had become. While she was making dinner she was thinking about her email. While she was talking to her husband, she was thinking about her email. While she was eating her lunch, she was worrying about her email. The anxiety was constant.
She saw those worries build and compound during her day as we conducted the experiment. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t comfortable for her but at the end of it all, she saw that none of her worst case scenarios happened by stepping away from her email for two hour blocks at a time. She was more productive. She was more present. The experience allowed her to foster the belief: I can step away to focus and do my job and nothing life-altering will happen in a span of two hours.
In a world where everyone is so connected and the lines between our home and our professional lives have become so blurred, the need to set boundaries and start paying attention to our automatic impulses to constantly check our email and be available are critically important.
How are those impulses serving you?
If this is to become our new normal, we need to start re-employing the small daily treasures that can make life so much more enjoyable. Taking breaks. Disconnecting. Stepping away. And honoring a set work schedule. Your professional world will not come crumbling down if you are away for two hours. I would even posit to say that your professional world will not come crumbling down if you step away from your email for as long as three or even four hours. What would you gain have if you were able to eradicate the thinking that is gluing you to your phone and your email all day long? More peace? More happiness? I encourage you to conduct your own experiment to find your own answer.