Work-Life Balance: How To Switch Off From An ‘Always On’ Culture

7 February 2023 |
Episode 3 |
53:18

Episode summary

Did you know that not taking breaks from work could shorten your life? In this episode, I explain why maintaining a work-life balance is so hard in the digital age and how failing to disconnect daily could be setting you up for burnout. I explore the challenges of working in an ‘always on’ company culture and share practical tech tips to help you manage your time, set better boundaries, and switch off outside of working hours.

 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • Why work-life balance is important, even if you love your job
  • How failing to take holidays and regular breaks could literally be costing you your life
  • Why prevention is better than cure when it comes to burnout
  • How technology enables remote working but blurs the line between your work and personal space, causing you to work more than ever before
  • The convenience and the curse of communications platforms like email, WhatsApp, Teams, and Slack
  • How country laws, company culture, and the behaviour of your managers and peers is influencing your personal beliefs about work-life balance
  • The subconscious message you send when you don’t prioritise your personal time
  • Right to Disconnect laws and what they mean for you and your work
  • The rise of the 4 day work week and other company policies to promote work-life balance and help employees switch off
  • The importance of holding yourself accountable for maintaining work-life balance and protecting your wellbeing
  • How to use technology in a way that optimises your working time and creates boundaries between your work and personal life, so that you can disconnect outside of working hours

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey everyone, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re doing well. I hope you’re happy, that you’re healthy, and that you’re hanging on in there, because I know the struggle is real right now for a lot of people.

[00:00:48] I myself, if you haven’t been able to tell from the last few episodes, am battling to get rid of this cold. It’s really starting to get on my nerves, and I can hear it every time I listen back to the episodes when I’m doing the editing. I sound like I have been smoking 10 a day, which is not the case. So, thanks for hanging on in there and listening to my croaky man voice as well.

[00:01:10] Today we are continuing on with our theme of New Year’s resolutions and goals. Now, if you’re new to the podcast and you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, first of all, welcome! But second of all, make sure you check out Episode 1. It’s called, “How To Maximize Your Willpower and Minimise Digital Distractions to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick,” and it will give you all the background on willpower and the role of dopamine when it comes to staying on track with your goals.

[00:01:41] The goal that I want to talk about today is work-life balance, because a lot of you kick-off the year promising yourselves that you’re going to make it a reality and not just a buzzword, and technology definitely makes it harder to maintain than ever before. And it doesn’t matter if your job is a means to an end for you or you absolutely love what you do, you still need to balance the demands of work with the rest of your life.

[00:02:10] Every December, without fail, when I talk to the people in my life, so many of them are literally crawling to the Christmas holidays, telling themselves that if they can just hang on a little bit longer, they’ll get a break and a bit of rest. And it’s like a wave of relief when it finally arrives.

[00:02:29] In that break, you might spend time with the family and friends that you don’t always have enough time to see regularly. Maybe you’re able to care for yourself a little better. Maybe you do a bit of life admin, you get to relax, you sleep. And just as you’re starting to feel human again, and you reconnect to yourself and to what’s really important to you, the new year arrives.

[00:02:53] So, in an act of defiance against the back-to-work January blues, you resolve to have a better work-life balance moving forward. And maybe you keep it up for the first couple of weeks, or maybe even the first month. You maintain your boundaries, you close the laptop at the end of the day, or you leave the office on time. You don’t read or respond to emails after hours, and you certainly don’t do work on weekends.

[00:03:21] Maybe, like many people, you even started a new job at the start of the year and you promised yourself that you would do things differently in this new place from the beginning. Or you even chose that new company because it seemed like the culture of the workplace would be different and would allow you to have that balance that you had been seeking.

[00:03:41] But then something happens. A big project lands on your desk unexpectedly. A colleague goes off sick. Some project is going off piste and you have to dedicate extra time to get it back on track. And slowly but surely your old habits start creeping back in, and before you know it, you’re back to doing work at weekends, or you’re cancelling plans or forgoing the gym after work because you have to work late.

[00:04:08] And shortly after this, the exhaustion starts to kick back in and it feels like you’re back in that hamster wheel all over again. And suddenly you find yourself on your knees once more, crawling to the next three-day-weekend or the next holiday that you’ve booked, if you can even find time to take one.

[00:04:26] And for many of you, a holiday isn’t even a complete break anymore. There’s a really great ad running at the moment from British Airways encouraging you to take your holidays seriously. I’ll link it in the show notes, but the woman at the centre of the ad is on holiday in what looks like some amazing, lush Caribbean resort. And she’s complaining about the tendency to work while on holiday, while there’s a guy sitting next to her, working away on his iPad and talking on the phone.

[00:04:56] Her phone starts ringing with a work call and she answers it, screams, “No!” into the handset, and chucks it into a water cooler. And then she takes the guy next to her’s phone, shouts no into his phone, and chucks that into the water cooler too. And it’s a really funny ad because it’s so relatable, but it stemmed from some pretty worrying statistics and is backed by even scarier scientific evidence.

[00:05:22] BA commissioned a survey with YouGov and they found that half of working UK adults don’t take their full annual leave entitlement. 42% of the respondents said that they felt stressed about work while they’re on holiday and almost half, at 46%, have had to work while on leave, with another 48% checking work emails while they’re away. And over a third of them have actually responded to the emails that they’ve read.

[00:05:51] Now, those are not small numbers, and I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t really surprised by them, because that’s definitely been me in the past. And I have definitely holidayed with people who’ve done this, and I know so many other people that still do this regularly.

[00:06:08] And the scary thing is that the ad refers to a 40-year-old study from the European Society of Cardiology that literally suggests that taking a holiday could help you live longer. The study found that men who took more than three weeks of leave per year were 63% more likely to live longer than those who took three weeks or less of annual leave time.

[00:06:33] I understand that holidays can be expensive and that annual leave entitlement varies massively from company to company, and certainly from country to country. I am looking at you, my American friends, I think the system really does you dirty on this one. So, I’m not suggesting that you start jetting off to the Caribbean for two weeks, three times a year. Especially since the statistics show that so many of you won’t fully disconnect once you’re there, but mostly because it’s not going to be pragmatic or financially viable for a lot of people.

[00:07:06] What I am suggesting is that you do need to take regular extended breaks away from work, so you can still take time off even if you’re not going away anywhere. And, more importantly, that you need to find a way to maintain work-life balance on a day-to-day basis. Because the cost of not doing that is total burnout.

[00:07:28] There is a burnout epidemic brewing, if in fact it hasn’t started already. And trust me when I say that if it gets you, a two week holiday will not be enough to fix it. I’ve personally experienced two burnouts and, although the two experiences were a little different, one of the things that they had in common is that they were both fuelled and enabled by technology.

[00:07:53] Now, I’ll be dedicating a whole episode of the podcast to the topic of burnout very soon because it’s very specific and there is loads to unpack. But as with many things, prevention is obviously better than cure. So today we’ll be focusing on establishing and maintaining work-life balance, and I hope that you never have to experience anything even remotely close to a burnout because it is truly a horrible experience.

[00:08:21] When it comes to the role of technology in work-life balance, I kind of see there being three levels. First you have the country level, so the laws and the culture of the country that you work in. Then you have the company level, so the culture of your workplace and the example set by your peers and your leadership team. And finally you have the individual level, so your own personal boundaries and working practices. And we’re going to deal with each of them in turn.

[00:08:51] So, first up, the country level, and the laws and culture of the country that you work in. Different countries clearly have different views on the role and the importance of work in general. In the work that I do in agency adland, I’ve had clients from all over the world, and this is a broad generalisation, but my US clients and colleagues typically have no problem jumping on calls at 7am, or emailing urgent requests at 9pm at night.

[00:09:20] Sometimes this is down to the time difference, but oftentimes it’s in full knowledge of that time difference, and that those requests will require either them or me to work outside of normal working hours. I’m also often told that I can still email, or text them, or call them when they’re on vacation, and I get emails from them when they’re on vacation too.

[00:09:41] At the opposite end of the scale, I’ve worked with a lot of clients in Denmark who always seem to be on some kind of leave, whether it’s annual leave, parental leave, public holidays, personal days. I’ve had UK clients that are nowhere to be found from 4.30pm onwards every single day. And, more than once, I’ve had urgent projects to work on with clients in France and Spain that are due for delivery in September. Only to be told that the team is basically shut down for the summer and they’ll be available to do the work in September itself.

[00:10:15] And I think some of that is reflective of the legal entitlement to paid annual leave. So, in the US, I was quite surprised to find that there’s actually no statutory entitlement, even though most companies will give their employees around 10 days. And the Danes get a massive 5 weeks, so 25 days, and more if the company is feeling generous.

[00:10:37] So you can see that it varies massively, and I think where you are in the world can play into your own beliefs about the role of work, how much you should be working, and how available you should be for work-related activity during your personal time. So many people are ambitious and trying to get ahead, and this almost works against them because, if they don’t align to these norms, then they’re made to feel like they’re not serious about their job or their career advancement, which creates a worry that they won’t ultimately be recognised for their work, and may get passed over for opportunities or receive smaller financial bonuses at the end of the year.

[00:11:17] And this problem isn’t solved by changing companies because it’s ingrained in the working culture of the country. This is one of the reasons that there’s a growing global discussion around what’s known as Right to Disconnect laws. A Right to Disconnect law gives workers the right to disengage from work and work-related communications outside of agreed working hours. So, for example, by turning off their devices or not checking or responding to emails, texts, or phone calls.

[00:11:47] It’s designed to encourage better work-life balance, building on our right to rest and leisure, and the limitation of working hours that’s outlined in Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A few countries, like Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, I think also the Philippines and Slovakia, have versions of this law in place. But there’s currently no specific legal right under European and many other national laws.

[00:12:18] And the thing is, excessive working outside of agreed working hours was already a problem before the pandemic. It was made easier with the advances in technology, and we all know and we felt that. All of these devices and their connectivity support this always-on culture, and they cultivate the expectation that you’ll be contactable at all times. And with remote working now becoming the norm, I think the need for laws like this becomes a little bit more urgent.

[00:12:47] 28% of people working from home report working in their free time, either every day or several times a week, compared with just 8% of on site workers. And we’ve also seen that women are more likely to want to work from home because of needing to juggle responsibilities, and they have a much harder time doing so.

[00:13:09] They often report much higher levels of stress, there are higher levels of depression, and just the sheer number of hours that they work compared to their male counterparts is much higher. And as we touched on already, this can and does lead to exhaustion and burnout, which of course doesn’t benefit you as an individual. But it doesn’t benefit the organisation that you work for either, if you start to think about the costs that are associated with absenteeism and the need to constantly recruit people due to a high turnover of staff.

[00:13:42] Now, on its own, a law is completely useless. I am not saying that a law will magically bring everyone work-life balance, but I do believe that it would send a really clear message about how we expect to work in the 21st century. And I think it would lay the foundation for changes at an individual and an organisational level, which are the two other levels that I mentioned we’re going to be talking about today.

[00:14:07] For the law to be effective, it has to be enforceable. So all workers would have to respect each other’s right to disconnect, and we’d need to have processes in place to allow people to report, to manage, to penalise, and to fix any breaches.

[00:14:24] And I think laws like this can really compel organisations that are maybe a little bit resistant to these kind of changes to actually go ahead and implement appropriate working practices. Because, obviously, not doing so would result in legal or financial repercussions for them, so a tribunal or a fine. And it would also make them much less attractive to prospective employees because they’re not falling into line with the country norms.

[00:14:51] I also think it would empower individuals to establish a better work-life balance because you’re now safe in the knowledge that your employer can’t penalise you for doing this. And if they do apply penalties to you, so if you get unfairly passed over for a promotion, you would have a legal mechanism of appeal.

[00:15:11] Now, if you want to check what the laws are in your country currently, you just need to Google Right to Disconnect law. And if it doesn’t exist yet, you will probably find loads of petitions that you can sign because there is a real push from campaigners to make these laws a reality.

[00:15:28] Okay. Next up, the company level, so the culture of your workplace and the example set by your leadership team. Like the country level, this varies massively, and company culture has such a huge impact on your own beliefs about the importance of work-life balance. Unlike the country level, at this level I think you can actually effect tangible changes much more quickly, particularly if you’re part of the leadership team, or you run your own business.

[00:15:58] But to be honest, even if you’re a manager or you are a junior, you really have an opportunity here to make changes that you will feel and see in your everyday working life. As I said before, burnout is a very real concern, and the pandemic blurred the boundaries between our work and home lives, which gave many workplaces a glimpse into the day to day reality for their employees.

[00:16:22] Everyone was feeling the strain from the top to the bottom, and this forced a lot of companies to re-examine both their workplace culture, but also their wellbeing offerings, taking much more interest in employee welfare than I think they have done at any other time.

[00:16:37] People really needed work not to add to the stresses that they were already experiencing. And in the pandemic, companies couldn’t rely on what I think are often well-intentioned, but usually quite tokenistic and performative gestures that they have done in the past. So I’m talking here about subsidised gym membership, free food and free fruit baskets, weekly 15-minute massages, lunchtime yoga.

[00:17:05] None of those things worked when the gyms were closed, and employees are working remotely and their kids are screaming in the background. What people were really asking for, and what they got, was flexible working, whether that’s in hours, in days, or location. Flexible working has marked a huge improvement in work-life balance for many people, and we have to thank technology for making that possible.

[00:17:32] The businesses that managed to survive the pandemic wouldn’t have been able to without technology, and I think we are only going to see a rise in remote and asynchronous working in the years to come. And despite a few companies demanding that their employees return to the office full time, the vast majority have accepted that people are comfortable committing to two to three days a week in the office, with the option to come in more often if it suits their circumstances.

[00:17:58] And of course, companies can no longer argue that this is going to impact productivity, or people’s ability to do their jobs, because, hello, we all just did it for two years. So remote or flexible working is also becoming a competitive advantage because people vote with their feet and they look to move to companies that are willing to accommodate their need for flexibility.

[00:18:21] Now, while we’re all grateful for this, the same technology that’s helped us navigate this shift has also introduced a flood of problems, because it enables constant contact in an environment where there are now fewer boundaries around appropriate times for communication. There are fewer stopping cues, so obvious signs that it’s time to stop working, like everyone around you leaving the office, are gone.

[00:18:45] And it’s also given us a greater range of tools that we can use to do our jobs remotely or on the go. And I want you to think about that for a second, because, if you’re old enough, decades ago, if you left the office, you were gone. There was no emailing you, or texting you, or calling you, or sending you a Teams message, or a Slack message. Emergencies had to wait until the morning when you walked back in the door.

[00:19:10] You might get a heads up about something, but no-one expected you to act on that information until you were back at your desk the next day. Only HR had the number of your landline phone, if you remember those. So your boss wasn’t going to be calling you in the middle of dinner telling you that they need some tweaks to the presentation that you’ve been working on done for the next day.

[00:19:31] Then, when employers started to introduce work phones, it wasn’t routine for every employee to have one. It was only managers and senior leaders, or people working in certain functions. And those phones weren’t the all-singing, all-dancing smartphones that we have now either.

[00:19:48] So, if you were in one of these positions, at best you got an email and at worst a phone call or a text message. But it was, again, usually informational, and you still weren’t expected to act on the contents there and then. And unless you replied to the email, or you actually answered the phone, in most cases the sender didn’t even have confirmation that you had received the message.

[00:20:11] Now we’re in a situation where everybody’s got a phone or everyone has a work laptop. Your colleagues can see whether or not you’re online on platforms like WhatsApp, Teams, and Slack. There’s a bright green dot next to your name, or a status that says that you’re there. And if you don’t respond on one platform, they can contact you on one or all of the other 5 million that are available.

[00:20:34] They know when a message has been delivered, because it appears in the chat window and it gets two ticks next to it. And they know that you’ve read it, if it gets two blue ticks or they’ve requested read receipts or notifications to be sent to them. So now you feel compelled to respond, even if it’s just to acknowledge the message. And suddenly work is back on your brain, and you start worrying about all the actions that you need to take, whether that’s unconsciously or consciously, and it stops you from relaxing and switching off in your personal time.

[00:21:06] Many people used to read books, or listen to music, or audiobooks, or podcasts when they were commuting. And if you’ve ever stood on a London Underground train during rush hour, then you know that there’s not really much else that you can do when you’re crammed into the carriage like a tinned sardine and desperately trying to distract yourself from the really poor personal hygiene habits of whoever’s armpit your head’s been wedged into.

[00:21:28] And now that many of us don’t have to commute as frequently, we’re not keeping up with these habits or reclaiming that time for ourselves. We’re starting work earlier and we’re finishing later, even if that’s just reading and responding to emails and messages. We’re also not taking breaks away from our screens as frequently, because the kitchen is three steps away and everything takes place in the same spot.

[00:21:52] Before, we would be having face-to-face meetings or we would be crossing the office floor to the coffee machine, stopping for a chat with our colleagues along the way, or in the kitchen. We’d be heading to the canteen in a different building or even stepping outside of the office to pick up lunch and get some fresh air.

[00:22:11] These days, when we’re working from home, we just take our coffee and our lunch straight back to our desk and we carry on working. And even those more casual conversations with our colleagues still end up taking place on a screen, whether that’s in the messenger platforms or on a video call.

[00:22:26] And when it comes to holidays, as I’ve already said, many of us don’t take off the time that we’re entitled to. And when we do take the time off, we’re not properly switching off and disconnecting anyway. In fact, one of the most interesting statistics is that companies that have implemented unlimited paid holiday as a benefit find that most employees end up taking less holiday rather than more. So, how can you counteract these problems?

[00:22:54] As I said, different levels of seniority will be able to make changes on different scales, and we’ll talk more about individual actions in just a moment. But in service of your colleagues, as an employee, whether you’re junior or you’re C suite, please commit to communicating with your colleagues, and your clients, and your suppliers during normal office hours.

[00:23:17] Don’t send messages or call people outside of this time. Don’t harass people for answers to your questions. If it can wait, then let it wait. Because if everyone stopped expecting messages or calls to arrive outside of working hours, they’d be much more likely to put their devices down for the day because they wouldn’t be pulled in by visual or audio notifications.

[00:23:41] And if they had previously been proactively checking their messages, but they consistently find nothing new, then the dopamine hit wouldn’t be there. And all the neural pathways associated with this behavior would eventually become weaker over time, so they’d stop going and checking their phone.

[00:23:58] Now, if you’re a manager or in a leadership position, then this can have an even greater impact because you’re responsible for setting the workplace culture and your people will emulate your behaviors. By sending messages outside of working hours, regularly working late or at weekends, never taking a lunch break, and consistently failing to take your full annual leave entitlement or, worse, responding to messages from your sun lounger when you’re supposed to be on holiday, you’re setting a precedent for your team members.

[00:24:32] And I know that this can often be driven by a desire to make sure that your team feels supported at all times, even in your absence. And I know you’re not expecting them to work in the way that you do. But it doesn’t matter how much you push a narrative about the importance of work-life balance, and you advocate for a “do as I say, and not as I do” approach. If you don’t model the behaviours and the culture that you want your workplace to have, it sends out a much more powerful subliminal message.

[00:25:04] You are effectively saying to your team or your employees, in order to get ahead, or in order to be successful at the next level, this is how I need to work. And so your team will keep copying what you do because they believe that that’s what’s expected of them, and they worry that not acting in line with this will somehow hold them back in their career or make them be seen as less valuable to the team. Even if it’s making them deeply unhappy and it’s disrupting their own work-life balance.

[00:25:38] Now, if you have even more seniority and control, so maybe you are actually part of the management team or you’re running your own business, then you have the power to put in place even more transformative practices that can make a real difference. And I’m going to share two of my favourite ideas, and then one idea that’s probably less of a surprise and is becoming much more popular.

[00:26:01] The first idea comes from an Amsterdam design studio called Heldergroen, and I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly. But this will work for people that are still working in the office. During the day, the design studio at Heldergroen looks like a normal workplace. But at 6pm., someone turns a key and all of the desks lift up into the air with the computers and the paperwork attached, and they stay suspended from the ceiling until the following morning. And it’s all achieved using theatre rigging.

[00:26:34] The clear floor space is then made available for other people to hire for free. So it becomes a dance or yoga studio on some nights. It becomes a place for networking receptions or other events. Basically anything that you can think of. And it forces employees to stop working and they have to leave the office.

[00:26:54] Now, I love this idea, but I understand that theatre rigging is expensive and it’s not going to be an option for everyone. But even something as simple as having one person or two people take ownership of the key to the office, and them leaving and locking the door on time, can make a huge difference.

[00:27:13] The second idea I read about, which I love, comes from the German automobile company Daimler, who are now part of or known as the Mercedes Benz Group. Daimler implemented a mail on holiday email policy to make sure that their employees were taking full advantage of their time off without fearing an overflowing inbox when they returned.

[00:27:34] And I think this is genius because anyone who’s ever taken time off and come back to 500 emails will know that most of those emails are about events or urgent things that have passed. Or they’re about who ate someone’s yogurt or left half-eaten pizza in the company fridge for three weeks and restarted evolution.

[00:27:54] Under the Daimler policy, employees have the option to set their emails to auto-delete while they’re away from the office. So if you then email a Daimler employee who is on vacation and they have this setting turned on, you’ll get a response letting you know that your email’s going to be deleted. So the recipient will never see it.

[00:28:14] And then you’re given the option to either email another member of the team, if your request is an emergency or it’s time sensitive, or to send your email again once the employee has returned to work. So now employees don’t have to worry about checking emails and responding or forwarding urgent messages to their teams, or panic about things that they have no control over from 5,000 miles away. They won’t even see those emails.

[00:28:40] And I love this so much because it’s quite a bit more practical than lifting desks off the floor, and it impacts everyone, even remote workers. It’s similar in many ways to a common practice in the financial sector, where many companies shut off access to email and all other company systems for employees for two weeks and force them to take annual leave. And it’s done for auditing purposes, so to detect fraud and malpractice, but it does ensure that those employees are able to mentally switch off because they can’t physically get into any of the work systems.

[00:29:14] The last idea, which you’ve probably heard a lot about in the news, is moving to a four day working week. And that four day working week is one that has no loss in pay for employees. So we’re not talking about reducing people’s pay packet by 20% in exchange for a shorter working week.

[00:29:31] This has been somewhat controversial, but so far it’s worked really well for the companies that have tried it. There was a coordinated pilot for six months in the UK, which ran alongside similar pilot schemes in Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and I think New Zealand. And it’s run and championed by an organisation called the Four Day Work Week.

[00:29:53] At the halfway point, which I think was in September, although I think they might have reported fully now, they showed that productivity had either been maintained or improved in 95% of the companies taking part. And the employees in those companies also reported greater wellbeing and work-life balance.

[00:30:11] Not only that, but 86% of the UK firms that took part said that they would be continuing the four day work week once the pilot ended, and I think another 100 or so more companies in the UK have signed up since. I don’t think that this is going away anytime soon, I think it’s going to become much more popular. And, much like the flexible working and remote working, I think it’s going to be a real competitive advantage.

[00:30:37] So people will start moving to companies that will allow them to have a four day working week, without actually impacting their pay. In fact, one of my best friends who’s working really hard on a startup in and around her current job has already told her team that they’ll be implementing a four day working week once they formally launch.

[00:30:55] So, definitely a sign of things to come, and a model that I think will become more commonplace. I’ll link the Four Day Work Week in the show notes. If you’re a leader who would like more information, they have lots of resources available, or if you just want to be a bit cheeky and show it to your employer and give them a gentle nudge, there is lots of information, the statistics, and some of the big name companies that have tried out the four day week.

[00:31:21] That brings us to the final level, which is the individual level, that’s all about your own personal boundaries and your working practices. Now, it goes without saying that this is where you can have the greatest impact on your work-life balance, and I’m not going to pretend that it’s not difficult if you’re in a country or a company that doesn’t support work-life balance in the ways that I’ve just described. But it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless either.

[00:31:47] But it’s important to hold yourself accountable for the role that you play in determining your own work-life balance. Country and company culture are both very much factors in the equation, but ultimately no-one is holding a gun to your head and making you work extra hours or answer emails when you’re on holiday.

[00:32:04] It’s something that you’re choosing to do, whether consciously or unconsciously. And you’re doing it after weighing up the consequences for both the company that you work for and for yourself. And although many of us don’t like to admit it, we’re often willingly sacrificing our personal time and our wellbeing in service of the companies that we work for.

[00:32:25] This obviously isn’t too problematic from time to time, but doing it routinely not only starts to set the expectation that you’re willing to work in this way all the time, it starts to have very real implications for your personal lives and your wellbeing. Your personal relationships can suffer, your mental and physical health can be affected, and as I’ve mentioned several times, over time this leads to overwhelm and burnout.

[00:32:49] So, to help you avoid this very sorry state of affairs, these are my four biggest tips for managing your technology to help you maintain boundaries and support a better work-life balance. The first tip is to maintain physical separation between your work and personal spaces. And this has to do with removing temptations from your environment that keep you from switching off and disconnecting from work, and intrude on your personal time in personal spaces.

[00:33:19] So, what does that look like? First of all, let’s talk about a bit of device hygiene. You need to stop using your personal devices for work and work-related tasks. So, phones, laptops, tablets, whatever you use, stop using them. Remove access to your work email accounts, remove presentation and spreadsheet and design software, if the only reason that you use it is for work.

[00:33:46] Just remove any work-related apps. Email and all work-related apps should ideally live on your work devices, so that you won’t be tempted to use them during your personal time. And it will also stop you from looking at email when you’re supposed to be on leave or on vacation. At the end of the day, you also should try to turn your work devices off completely, so that you won’t receive notifications and be triggered by the screen lighting up, or sounds that tempt you to check in outside of working hours.

[00:34:18] I also recommend keeping your workspace separate from your living space. Now, in an ideal world, work would stay at the office, but with remote working, this is no longer as straightforward as it used to be. So there are a couple of options because this obviously depends on how much space you have available, and if you’re in a financial position to spend money on creating that separation.

[00:34:41] If you’re working from home and you have the space, rather than working from the kitchen or the dining room table, set up a dedicated desk. That might be in a different room. So I turned my spare room into an office last year, and I know a few people who built little office outhouse shed things at the end of the garden. But equally it might just be creating a makeshift desk in the corner of the room.

[00:35:05] The key here is really to make this space somewhere that you go only for work, so you can have your work devices set up there ready for you to get going whenever you sit down. If you can set up in a separate room, then this makes it easier to simply close the door and stay out of the room when you’re done working for the day, and leave your devices behind you.

[00:35:26] If you’re creating a space in an existing living space, like your living room, then my recommendation is to purchase a divider screen so that you can section this area off when you’re not using it, and again, keep the devices in your workspace from being visible. The last thing that you want to see when you’re trying to relax is devices that make you think of work.

[00:35:46] And if there isn’t space for a divider, then even an old sheet or a tablecloth that you can chuck over everything can help here. Failing that, if your devices are more mobile, so a laptop rather than a large screen, just put it in a cupboard and close the door. The goal is to make your devices, and therefore temptation, invisible.

[00:36:07] Now, if you’re going a bit stir crazy at home, or you don’t have the space but you really don’t fancy a return to the office and you don’t need to be tethered to a giant screen, then get out of the house. The options here are only as limited as your imagination.

[00:36:22] Most people automatically think of working from busy coffee shops or co-working spaces. And while I think both of these are great options, they can get expensive by the time you hit your fifth coconut latte of the day, or if you want to use them more than a couple of times a month. So one of my favourite places to work is the library.

[00:36:42] Most libraries have decent Wi-Fi now, they’re quiet, and there is usually plenty of space to get your head down and work. And best of all, libraries are free. This clearly doesn’t work if you’re someone that needs to take a lot of phone calls or video meetings, but for days or parts of days when you’re trying to get your head down it can often be the perfect place.

[00:37:04] My other suggestion, if you’re in London, is to consider a co-working membership like AndCo, which I will link in the show notes. With AndCo, you pay a £20 per month flat fee and you get unlimited access to desks at over 200 venues across London. And because the venues are often spaces like hotels, coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, each one sets its own times when you can work there, and that’s often during their quieter periods. But there is a very good selection that covers normal working hours too.

[00:37:39] And while the venues might not always be pin drop silent, in many of them you’ll be sitting in a dedicated room, like an event space that they normally hire out, and you can take calls and meetings without being shushed like you would in the library. Some of the venues are also AndCo Plus members, which means that you’ll get a free coffee or discounted food and drink, which is always a bonus. And booking spaces is very straightforward with their app.

[00:38:04] This can be a great option if you want to mix it up from time to time, or if you need the flexibility of different locations around the city. And in each of its venues AndCo puts in their own Wi-Fi, so you can be really confident that it’s not going to be crappy coffee shop Wi-Fi that keeps cutting out or is really slow if you need to do work that needs a much bigger bandwidth.

[00:38:26] My second tip is to manage your diary meticulously. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a PA, then diary management can be a bit of a pain in the arse, let’s be honest. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been trying to schedule a meeting and not been able to make it work with all of the people that are needed, only for the suggestion of meetings over lunch, or meetings before or after work to be thrown into the mix. And I used to accept them, because I didn’t want to be difficult, and I think many people are the same.

[00:38:57] But it’s a really slippery slope, especially if you’re working in a culture where this is the norm. An early meeting for me either meant getting up even earlier than I already do, or forgoing part of my morning routine, so usually missing breakfast or missing a workout. And a lunchtime meeting meant that I didn’t actually end up eating lunch until about 4pm, when I was free of all the other meetings that had stopped this meeting going in at a sensible time in the first place.

[00:39:21] Meetings after work meant that I was often too tired to do anything else and dinner was a chore, so I would end up ordering takeaway. And, if I’m being brutally honest, I think this is a particular problem for people that don’t have family responsibilities, because it’s much easier to justify skipping your own breakfast than it is to skip over feeding your kids.

[00:39:42] Regardless of this, if meetings don’t fit in the day, the answer is not to start scheduling them in your personal time. You need to work with your colleagues to find an alternative that fits everyone’s schedule. And sometimes that’s going to mean that there’s no meeting, and at other times you might have to divide and conquer or shift something else around.

[00:40:01] The other issue that I’ve often encountered is being so swamped with back-to-back meetings that I can’t actually do any work, and those meetings that I’m going to are creating even more tasks for me to do. Now, I know I’m not alone in this one. And it’s sometimes quite scary when you open up your calendar and you just see a wall of meetings for the day, because it means that the only time to do work is outside of working hours. And this is why so many people wind up logging on early or logging off late, or working at weekends.

[00:40:31] In order to protect your personal time, I recommend setting up the following blocks in your calendar. Firstly, block out before and after work. This is a bit of a no-brainer, but when people are viewing your calendar they’ll see these blocks and it visually discourages them from scheduling meetings that encroach on these times.

[00:40:49] Next, block out lunch and block out a couple of regular 5-minute breaks. Again, this discourages people from putting in meetings, but it’s also a visual cue in your environment reminding you to take lunch and take a breather. Sometimes you’ll have to move lunch around by an hour or so, but it means that you’re consciously thinking about when you’re going to take a break and feed yourself.

[00:41:10] And the same goes for your 5-minute breaks. You might have to move them around, but at least you’ll remember to take them. You should also block out times for doing work. And this is to make sure that you actually have time to do your job, particularly if you have projects that are running over a longer period of time or they need deeper concentration. I recommend at least 2-3 hours a day, preferably in the morning when your cognitive battery is the most charged up, and preferably in one block. But if this doesn’t work for you, then of course experiment with shorter blocks throughout the day.

[00:41:43] The next block I put in is after important meetings. If you already know that there’s going to be immediate actions from a meeting, or if you’re the person responsible for writing up the notes or the actions and sharing them, then setting aside time immediately after the meeting has taken place, makes sure that this gets done in the most efficient way and while it’s still fresh in your mind.

[00:42:04] This helped me a lot, because I found that meetings were creating a lot of tasks that weren’t on my to do list at the start of the day, and by having time set aside to tackle them, or at the very least to think through when I might be able to do them, it stopped my day suddenly becoming longer because things were being added to my plate.

[00:42:21] The final block is to block out your annual leave or your days off. Now, this sounds really obvious, but so many people don’t do it. This obviously requires that you actually take your annual leave, which I hope goes without saying. But assuming that you do, blocking them out in your calendar gives everyone plenty of notice that you’re going to be out, so that both you and them can plan around it, and you don’t find yourself having to make yourself available while trekking somewhere up a mountain because a project can’t move forward without your feedback.

[00:42:50] Now, when it comes to scheduling meetings and accepting meeting invitations from other people, I also always think it’s important to ask yourself or the meeting owner a couple of questions. Firstly, does this have to be a meeting? We’ve all, quite frankly, been in meetings that could have been emails, and we’ve all seen the memes as well.

[00:43:08] So if you really want to free up time, then re-evaluating whether a meeting is needed is a surefire way to do it. I also like to ask, what’s the purpose of this meeting? Again, we’ve all been in meetings that drag on aimlessly with no apparent end goal or purpose. Make sure that you communicate to attendees or ask the meeting owner what the aim of the meeting is, and that will help you to decide whether it’s relevant to you or not.

[00:43:33] In the past, I’ve sometimes worried a bit how this might come across. So, if you are worried, then just ask for an agenda. And it’s also good practice to put an agenda into your own meeting invites too. I like to ask, “what’s my expected contribution to this meeting?” Unless you’re leading the meeting, this isn’t always obvious.

[00:43:52] I’ve been invited to many meetings that ultimately I’ve not made a valuable contribution to. Sometimes because the meeting just had nothing to do with me, and at other times I was being asked to look at things before they were really ready for me to look at. Sometimes a representative was needed from my team, but we didn’t all need to be there. And so, because my teammates had already made my points, there was nothing for me to add.

[00:44:14] So, be really clear about what the person sending you the meeting invite is expecting from you by attending. And if they can’t articulate that, then don’t accept the meeting. And finally, I ask, “how long does this meeting need to be?” Many of the calendar programs have us default to scheduling meetings for 30 minutes or an hour. If we really think about it, we don’t need that long at all. We end up going off topic or talking about things other than what the meeting is related to, because we feel compelled to use up the allocated time.

[00:44:45] Next time you’re scheduling a meeting, ask yourself how much time do you realistically need? Because a lot can be achieved in a 10 minute powwow, and if you can schedule meetings to finish 5 minutes early, so 25 minutes instead of 30, or 55 minutes instead of an hour, you’ll give everyone, including yourself, some breathing space between meetings to take a bathroom break, or grab a coffee, or simply to stand up and stretch your legs before you have to head off into the next meeting.

[00:45:12] Now, if you want to be really geeky, and I am a massive geek, but if you want to be really geeky, you can even colour code your blocks and meetings. It might sound a bit over the top, but doing this really helped me to see visually in my calendar how much time I was spending each day in meetings versus doing work, and on doing work versus taking regular breaks. And it made it much easier to make adjustments and consolidations. So I was able to cut down on the number of internal meetings and see which clients or projects were taking up more of my time than they should.

[00:45:44] My third tip is to use the status features of your messaging platforms. It doesn’t matter which platform you use, whether it’s WhatsApp, email, Teams, Asana, Slack, all of them have status features. Some of those features are activated automatically because they’re linked to your calendar. So, Teams will display your status as busy with a big red dot when you’re in meetings, and it will display a pop-up notification that you’re away if your out-of-office is on in Outlook email application. But others require manual activation, either by you writing a one sentence status, or by you selecting from a list of options in a drop down menu.

[00:46:25] In my opinion, these are underrated and underused tools, again because they’re so visual. I’ve been guilty of pinging people both before and after hours in the past because it says that they’re online, and I know full well that what I’m messaging about is not, strictly speaking, urgent.

[00:46:41] And the worst thing about it is that those messages usually begin with, “Hey, are you there?” Which, of course, even if the other person didn’t mean to be there, they can’t now say that they’re not there, because we can both see the status says that they are. So they end up responding. And I’ve been on the receiving end of that as well.

[00:46:59] There’s also nothing worse than receiving a Teams message about the text message that someone sent you, which was itself about the email that they sent you, confirming that you saw the Asana tasks that you were assigned to. All because you don’t appear to be busy.

[00:47:12] So, during the day, use the status features to communicate to your team times at which you are, and aren’t, available, because you’ll be surprised how much of a deterrent this can be to people who want to message you when you’re supposed to be on a break, or in another meeting, or trying to remain focused on the task at hand.

[00:47:29] And at the end of the day, I suggest that you log out of these platforms completely. It means that people will unequivocally see that you’re not available. You don’t have to remember to set your status to offline. It means that you won’t receive notifications that disrupt your personal time. And you’re also making it harder for yourself to log back in just to check if anyone has messaged you, or for you to send a message, which means you’ll have to rely less on willpower to help you maintain that separation.

[00:47:58] My fourth and final tip is to take a look at your email habits and make sure that you’re not part of the problem. If you’re regularly reading or sending emails after hours or while you’re on leave, or you find yourself saying to people, “sure, send it to me, I’ll read it tonight and I’ll send you my thoughts,” then you’re encouraging and inviting people to interact with you during your personal time, and making it clear that you have no problem working outside of normal hours.

[00:48:25] Sometimes this is obvious and overt, as in the case of my US clients that I mentioned earlier, but you may even be doing it subconsciously. Again, when I’ve been working in agency land, sometimes I’d have to finish on time because I was going to an appointment, or I had dinner plans. And I’d find myself saying to my team, “send it to me, I’ll check it while I’m in the cab.” Or while I’m in the waiting room, or when I get back, which, after a few glasses of wine, was probably not going to be the best idea.

[00:48:53] And while I’d make it to my appointment, or to my dinner, I realised that I was never truly relaxed, because the whole time I’d be thinking, 1) have they sent it yet? and 2) I have to read this when I get home, and respond, and it’s late, and all I want to do is go to bed. And it’s not that my team wasn’t grateful to me for doing this, but the cost was a personal one.

[00:49:14] And if I really thought about it, it could have waited until the next day. Most of the time, nothing you are doing is a matter of life or death, unless you’re a member of the emergency services or you’re a doctor. So really ask yourself, do I need to read this right now? Do I need to send this right now? Or do I need to respond? Because oftentimes the answer will be no.

[00:49:37] Bad email habits are often deeply ingrained in many people, so it can be helpful to break down changing your habits into stages. Start by adding a note to your email signature that says you’re sending this email at a time that is convenient to you, but you do not expect responses outside of the recipient’s working hours.

[00:49:56] I’ve seen this done to great effect as it’s a direct instruction to the recipient that reassures them that there is no expectation of an immediate response. And as companies move more and more to asynchronous working, or you have people that you work with across different time zones, this message becomes further reinforced.

[00:50:15] Then you commit to not sending emails after hours or during periods of leave. You can still write them, but every major email client from Outlook to Google now has a send later feature. So you can write away to your heart’s content and then schedule the email knowing that it will be sent out at a sensible time.

[00:50:34] After that, you move on to reading but not replying to emails. So, you’re allowed to see what’s coming in, but you’re not allowed to take action until working hours resume. And after you’ve mastered that, you finally move to just not reading emails outside of hours.

[00:50:49] This might seem like ridiculous baby steps, but email hygiene is terrible for most people, and often the jump from one end of the spectrum, where keyboard warriors are firing off emails left, right and center and reading emails as soon as they enter the inbox, to being more deliberate about how and when you send and read email isn’t always easy to make in one step.

[00:51:12] And when you make a dramatic change like that, often you don’t end up sticking to it. So breaking it down into these smaller steps and stages ensures that you’re moving in the right direction, and makes the overall goal much more manageable and much more likely to be sustained.

[00:51:28] So, there you have it. If you’re committed to achieving a work-life balance, then hopefully some of the recommendations that I’ve shared will help you manage your tech so that you’re not “always on” and help you to set healthy boundaries, so that you can actually get your work done during working hours and truly disconnect and switch off outside of these times.

[00:51:47] That’s it for today’s episode. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that you found the tips useful. As always, you can find the show notes for the episode over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/003. And if you do decide to try out any of these individual strategies, or even become a champion for change in your working practices in your company, then I’d love to hear how you got on.

[00:52:12] You can either leave a comment on your social media platform of choice, and all my handles can be found on the show notes page, so that you can tag me and I’ll see it. Or you can email me directly at podcast@thedigitaldietcoach.com. I promise to respond to every single message.

[00:52:30] I know that you’re busy and your time is valuable so, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little bit of your day with me and I’ll see you next time.

 

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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