New Insights from my Work-Life-Balance Project
I have talked about digital detoxes and work life balance a lot on this blog over the past year (such as this, this, this or this). But I haven’t stopped there. In fact, I’m continuously experimenting because I really haven’t figured this work-life-balance thing out yet. I’m progressing but not there yet. In this post, I’ll share some more recent insights. Scroll down to get to the list of suggested measures to take.
Realization: I cannot keep my digital habits under control when my stress levels are too high
I have realized that – probably not surprisingly – my digital habits like social media abuse, needlessly over-frequent email-checking or even watching more episodes of series than I think I actually want to see are deeply linked with stress at work. Since last year’s digital minimalism project, I have done another one in the meantime. This was also quite successful because it actually turned out that deleting some apps and switiching to my lightphone II (which has finally arrived in December – I’ll dive deeper in another post) really helped.
But I’m struggeling to make these positive changes consistent. I jump off the busy bandwagon with lots of effort (yay!). Then I manage to strictly separate work time and life time, I don’t overuse digital distractions and can calm down. Perfect, right?
However, at times when my stress rises to a certain level (which is bound to happen at least once every two weeks), I’m having huge difficulty coming down again. And these are the moments where bad digital habits are back, such as checking my email inbox 20 times in a row even though I know I won’t answer any email because it’s evening already. Even though it is in exactly those moments where I need to disconnect most and every time I check email again, I restart the rehab process all over again. Like with any addiction. So basically, I have managed to break the habits – which is good – but I’m suffering a relapse every time I’m stressed. Meaning these new habits are not exactly robust and I have to do the withdrawal time and time again which is hard and not exactly time- and energy-efficient.
But, as we have learned, the opposite of addiction is not control but connection. You’re not addicted to a substance or habit but rather use it to fill the void coming from something else. I’m still working on developing a failsafe mechanism for coming back down in those moments – but I’ll let you know once I’ve found it. I think it’ll have something to do with ensuring somehow that the rise of stress levels to this harmful degree is limited by putting some system in place somehow. In the meantime, at least I can share the good habits I’ve developed. They are really gratifying while they last 😉
Better work-life balance habits: The measures taken
The measures I have taken so far do work. I still have occasional slips and getting back into the good habits afterwards is hard each single time. Which is weird because the new habits actually are very positive for me. I really enjoy them actually, which makes it weird that I still have to suffer some small ‘withdrawal’ symptoms every time I want to get back. I think it might have something to do with external factors like the work environment triggering me into old stress coping mechanisms and makes me feel pressured.
Anyway, these are my current measures taken, the reasons why I took them and the positive effects I have observed:
- Have one day off per weekend where you do something outside, in nature, all day, without digital distraction – such as skiing, hiking, or maybe even a city trip. Just make sure you really get out of your normal environment and best go somewhere without distraction from digital media.
- Don’t work in the evenings. I always thought it didn’t matter when I work or convinced myself that I’m productive in the evenings. Now I’ve accepted that this is just a lie I’ve told myself for many years. I’m just honestly not productive in the evenings, with very few exceptions which tend to get abused and blown out of proportion when we want to justify working evenings. When done first thing in the morning, the same tasks I could have accomplished in 3 hours in the night will take 30 min. Some people actually are night owls but don’t forget that you need to have your free time during the day or you’ll work overtime and end up in a state of constantly being unrested. Working nights is not all that compatible with most job situations without you suffering the downsides.
- Strictly separate work hours and free time. No working overtime unless it’s a real emergency (hint: if it happens more than once every 3-4 weeks, it’s a habit, not an emergency). I always tend to let that line become blurry. I also know that many people are convinced they are just so busy that they have to work overtime. But the point is – even if you think you’re actually ‘working’ in those hours (and given I’m not an expert in performance research), I can’t see any performance research suggesting that anyone possibly *can* be productive so many hours per day. If you’re having trouble going home when the clock says work time is over, use a timer.
- Ruthlessly triage, say no and accept the reality of trade-offs (“You can’t do it all.”), i.e. live an essentialist life. This is probably my newest insight. It’s common sense really and I’ve heard of this long ago already, yet until now, I think I never truly “got it”. But now I realized that working many hours is an excuse for many people (including myself): it let’s you keep the illusion that you don’t need to decide what to do and what to toss. It’s harder to live an essentialist life than to work overtime because working overtime is the social norm anyway. And it means you don’t need to make a hard decision and say no to anything or anyone. (Btw, you can download a printable book summary of Essentialism I made here.) Not allowing yourself to work overtime forces you to make those hard, but useful triaging decisions. It requires more discipline than one would think.
- Put the phone away as often as possible. Doing so is mandatory during your free time. Don’t use digital distractions as a go-to default way to “relax”. They will steal your time and you will not be truly refreshed afterwards, possibly even more stressed out (due to societal pressure on social media, etc.) Also avoid using this newly won time to binge-watch series because they will eat up your precious free time just the same. Endure the discomfort you get from not falling unto the sofa to watch Netflix (i.e. passive mindless distraction), thus either having to experience boredom (do you even remember what that feels like?) or/until you pick up the activation engery needed to spend your time on something more sensible. After a while, you will come up with something else to do and – believe it or not – it will probably be one of those things which you have been wanting to do forever but you never “found the time”. Such as taking up drawing again or finally reading that book. Mind you that Cal Newport suggests you include streaming and gaming in the digital detox, not just social media and apps, because they tend to have the same overall effects. I’ve done lots of research on habits and willpower, done experiments myself and I have found out that I have no problem ignoring my phone as long as it’s not around. I cannot count on myself to withstand the temptation when it’s close by. You probably are the same because studies show that really, when confronted with lots of temptation, nobody has the sufficient (endless) willpower required to work against apps which were built to abuse our every psychological weakness and make us addicted. Ignore the people making fun of you for using such “extreme measures” and claiming that you should just use willpower. I’m 100% sure they themselves don’t actually have their own procrastination problem under control if they spread such claims.
- A radical measure is using an automatic switch for switching off the internet from 19:00-07:30. This totally works and I loved it. However, the idea was met with some external resistance, so I succumbed and stopped doing it. It’s totally worth it though and highly recommened from my part.
- Work in “process, not product” time boxes. I am actually much happier, less stressed and more productive when I time-box every activity with my Time Timer (website and app). The Pomodoro technique would probably have the same effect. Focusing on the process, i.e. “I will sit down to work on my goal / todo for 60 minutes without distraction, regardless of the outcome or whether I can finish anything during that time” as opposed to the typical “to-do list way”, trying to cross tasks off. This is a really bad approach because it is more likely to trigger procrastination. Rather make a list of your goals and then decide how many hours or minutes you allocate for each type of task per day. When the time is over, stop. (I’m still having difficulty with the stopping part, especially if it’s work I do for someone else. Which is actually twice as harmful, as it means I’m allowing others to hijack my time and un-prioritize my own tasks.)
It’s a struggle but it’s worth it
As I said, I’m having trouble being consistent with these habits every once in a while myself – but I can assure you, the struggle is worth it. I find that when I go through with these habits, not only am I more relaxed and able to disconnect, I am also able to reach much higher focus and productivity during the periods I work. And most importantly, these much needed real breaks give me the clarity to be able to prioritize and accept that I can’t do all.
Either I decide to respond to people’s urgencies – which is often the easy way because it spares one the discomfort of having to tell them “NO!” – or I make time to write my thesis. I propbably don’t need to explain to you which one is the more favourable option. It’s also the less comfortable one, like always. Being busy and keeping busy is often a way of avoiding the real issues and distracting yourself. Don’t do that.
With that, I wish you good luck prioritzing your own goals. Maybe try a few of these suggestions.