Six Strategies For Escaping From The Work That Always Manages To Find You

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Photo: Flickr Patrik Jones

30 years ago, when you left work, you were done.Only doctors carried pagers, and reaching out to them after hours was truly for life or death matters.

Today, though, the communication and social tools designed to save us time in the office, by making us more productive, are encroaching upon our personal lives.

According to a new industry survey of IT users commissioned by social email software provider harmon.ie, 82 per cent of workers stay connected in the evenings, and the majority stay connected during vacation and in bed.

The standard advice to workers struggling to balance work and personal time focuses on prioritizing the work that absolutely has to get done—make a list of what you need to do, stay focused on what’s important, and so on—but you have to take things a step further and manage your connectivity with everyone at the office if you want to truly be able to regain control over your life.

Anything else is like hearing that to be in better shape, you really ought to exercise more and eat less. That’s good advice, but it will rarely actually be effective.

These tips will help you cope when your work can always find you.

Get Over the Instant Gratification
In many ways, constant connectivity is about instant gratification. There’s a positive feeling associated with being able to check your email and find something new there. There’s also some anxiety that goes along with being out of the loop, feeling left behind. As addictive as that instant gratification can be, moving past it is crucial. When you’re off duty, the latest item may seem to be urgent, but is it really?

As fun as that instant gratification can be, moving past it is crucial. You have to have something positive you can associate with actually getting your high priority work done.

Managing Emergencies and Expectations
One of the biggest issues that most people face in coping with constant communications is that in the mind of the sender, everything is an emergency. But you don’t necessarily have the same urgency to get back to someone as they had to contact you in the first place, especially if that email or IM comes in when you’re on vacation or sleeping.

That makes it crucial to lay some ground work on what actually constitutes an emergency and what can afford to wait until you get back to the office.

Your boss may have a certain expectation that he can always reach you on your mobile, whether you’ve stepped out of the office for lunch or you’re on the beach with your family. It’s not always a policy that management has thought about, but it tends to go with the territory.

That means that you need to be proactive and create your own policy, for both people who are further down the ladder or are your managers. You have to write out your personal expectations on communications in order to manage expectations. Without a policy in writing, you can be tempted to give in: You’ll answer a call just this once or handle a few emails just to get things done. You can also confuse the people that you need to work with. Set a meeting if need be to discuss how the policy can be implemented.

Take Vacations from Communications
Always being on is incredibly wearing: from not getting enough sleep to the energy necessary to be always ready to leap into action in response to an email, social update, or IM. To refresh, you have to take time off from work and actually have a separation from the office. That requires certain actions on both your part and by your boss.

First, you have to be willing to take a sabbatical from your digital devices—set times when you will be out of reach, and make the choice to turn everything off. You have to be willing to use the off button yourself, or at a minimum separate your personal and business online presence, if you want a vacation to be more than just a change of scenery for where you’re working.

Second, your manager or boss needs to understand that if you’re out of the office, especially if you’re on vacation, that means you shouldn’t be working. At first, it can be difficult for some companies to understand that sort of disconnection, especially in this day and age.

But it’s poor business strategy to simply refuse to give employees time to relax: If you can frame your discussion with your boss and with colleagues with the fact you need to be mentally fresh to do your job, it will be easier for them to understand the benefits of creating a division between work time and personal time. Respecting time off also makes people more willing to work—employees can be sure that they aren’t being abused.

Plan a Sit Down with Your Family
Just as with your employer, it’s important to have a clear idea of what expectations are with family members. For some people, it’s easy to wind up in a situation where a relationship suffers because one partner is spending “home” time working. It’s just as easy to wind up in a situation where a family member isn’t clear on boundaries and will contact you regularly during work hours. Laying out what each family member needs in terms of time and communications is important—sticking to it is even more crucial.

Without clear guidelines on the personal side, though, it’s that much easier for your work to find you and encroach on what’s supposed to be personal time.

Introduce Old School Etiquette to the Mix
There’s a reason that grandparents and other elderly relatives tend to get a little icy if you take a phone call at the dinner table. As a general rule, etiquette demands that if someone has taken time out of their day to spend with you—whether in a meeting or in a personal situation—you give them your full attention.

It’s not uncommon that people pull out their cell phones and other electronic devices when they should focus on the person in front of them: According to the same study, two out of three people report doing just that in meetings. But refusing to do so can make your work that much more manageable. It also means that you aren’t abusing other people’s time. It can be frustrating to see everyone in a meeting ignoring you when you’re the speaker.

Revisit Your Personal Communications Policy Regularly
As important as it is to set your guidelines for communication, it’s just as important to revisit them as situations change. At different points in your life, it can be more acceptable to be accessible to work—when you’re young and single, for instance, compared to when you have a brand new baby at home. So don’t assume that the policy that was perfect two years ago will stay that way. It should keep evolving with the rest of your life.

It’s Up to You to Control the Situation
The truth of having a career is that you have to put in the hours and do the work. There will always be situations that pop up and demand attention, even when work is supposed to be the last thing on your mind. But the same is true of your family and anything else you take seriously.

It’s up to you to create guidelines for how you will handle the different parts of your life, and it’s up to you to stick to the rules you’ve created. Remember, it takes practice to get used to being a little less accessible and having a little more control: it’s not a feeling that we can get used to immediately, and it takes self-discipline to keep choosing not to answer every beep and buzz we hear. But the benefits to your own peace of mind and your ability to do your work can be incredible.

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