Unplug to Recharge - a guide for IT Professionals (Part 3)
This is the last of a 3-part series, which is itself is a longer version of a talk I give at conferences and conventions.
Now that I'm wrapping it up, I would love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and ideas in the comments below!
In the last two sections of this series, I made a case for WHY unplugging should be important to us as IT Professionals, and I began to dig into specific examples of HOW we can make unplugging work for us. What follows are some additional techniques you can adapt for your own use, as well as some ways to frame your time away so that you avoid the FUD that can come with trying something new and potentially different from what our colleagues are doing.
Perspective is Key
Along with planning, another key to successfully disconnecting is to develop a healthy perspective.
Try this for the next few days: Note how you are contacted during real emergencies (and how often those emergencies actually happen).
It's easy to fall into the trap of answering every call, jumping screens at the sound of a bell or tweet, checking our phone at two-minute intervals, and so on, when NOTHING is actually that important or urgent.
Develop an awareness of how often the things you check turn out to be nothing, or at least nothing important.
Change the way you think about notifications. Mentally re-label them interruptions and then see which matter. Pay attention to the interruptions. That's where you lose control of your life.
If someone really needed you or needed to tell you something, they wouldn't do it in a random tweet. They wouldn't tag you in a photo. They probably wouldn't even send it as a group text. When people want you to know something, they use a very direct method and TELL you.
So once again, take a deep breath. Learn to reassure yourself that you aren't going to miss anything important. Honest.
Prioritization is Key
For people like me, going offline is pretty much an all or nothing deal. As I said earlier, if it has an on switch, it's off limits for me and my family.
But that doesn't have to be the case. You can choose levels of connectivity as long as they don't get the best of you.
A good example of this is your phone. Most now support an ultra, super-duper power saving mode, which has the unintended benefit of turning off everything except... you know... the phone part. With one swipe you can prioritize direct phone calls while eliminating all the distractions that smartphones represent. You can also set different applications manually to interrupt – I mean notify – you or not, so that you only receive the interruptions that matter.
As long as we're talking about prioritization, let's talk about getting work done. Despite your nagging suspicion to the contrary, your technology was not protecting you from the Honey Do list. It was just pushing the items on your list to the point where you had to work on them later in the day or week, and at a time when you are even less happy about it than you would have been otherwise.
Use your unplugged time to prioritize some of the IRL tasks that are dragging you down. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it is actually easier to get back to work when you know the gutters are clean.
As challenging as it sounds, you might also need to prioritize who you get together with on your day off the grid. Don't purposely get involved with friends who spend their weekends gaming, live-tweeting, etc. There's nothing wrong with those things, of course, but you're not really offline if you keep telling your buddy, "Tweet this for me, okay?”
Yes, this may change who you associate with and when. But don't try to be offline when everyone else around you is online. That's like going on a diet and forcing your friends to eat vegan chili cheese dogs.
But What About...
Hopefully this has gotten you thinking about how to plan for a day away from the interwebz. But there's still that annoying issue of work. Despite claims of supporting work-life balance, we who have been in IT for more than 15 minutes understand that those claims go out the window when the order entry system goes down.
The answer lies partly with prioritization. If you've made your schedule clear (as suggested earlier) and the NOC still contacts you, you'll need to make a judgement call about how or if you respond.
Spoiler Alert: Always opt for keeping a steady paycheck.
Speaking of which, on-call is one of those harsh realities of IT life that mangle, if not outright destroy, work-life balance. It's hard to plan anything when a wayward email, text, or ticket forces you to go running for the nearest keyboard.
If you are one of those people who is on-call every day of the year around the clock, I have very little advice for you to go offline, and honestly you have bigger fish to fry. Because that kind of rat race gets old fast.
On the other hand, I have a ton of experience coordinating rotating on-call with offline. Now, I don't want you to think that I've negotiated this upfront on every job I've held. I have had managers who respected my religious schedule and worked around it, and others who looked me in the eye and said my religion was my problem to solve. Here's what I've learned from both experiences:
First, the solution will ultimately rest with your coworkers. Not with your manager and certainly not with HR. If you can work out an equitable solution with the team first, and then bring it to management as a done deal, you're likely home free.
Second, nobody in the history of IT has ever said they loved an on call schedule; and everyone wants more options. YOU, dear reader, represent those options. In exchange for your desired offline time, you can offer to trade coworkers and cover their shift. You wouldn't believe how effective this is until you try it. In a few rare cases, I've had to sweeten the deal with two-for-one sales ("I'll take your Sunday and Monday for every Saturday of mine"), but usually just swapping one day for another is more than enough. Another trick is to take your coworker's entire on-call week in exchange for them taking that number of your offline days during your on call rotation.
Yet another trick: My kids school schedule is extremely non-standard. They have school on Sunday and don't get days off for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or most of the other major national holidays. So I can graciously offer to cover prime time days like Thanksgiving in exchange for them taking my time off. In essence, I'm leveraging time when my family isn’t going to be home, anyway.
The lesson here is that if you have that kind of flexibility, use it to your advantage.
But what about perception? If you unplug regularly, won't people notice and judge you?
First, don't overthink it. When people get wind of what you are doing, you're more likely to receive kudos than criticism, and more than a few wistful comments along the lines of, “I wish I could do that."
Second, if you followed my suggestions about communicating and prioritizing - the right people knew about your plans AND you remained flexible in the face of an actual crisis - then there really shouldn't be any question. In fact, you will have done more than most IT folks ever do when they walk out the doors.
So that leaves the issue of using your evenings and weekends to get ahead with technology, so you can be the miracle worker when Monday rolls around.
While I understand the truth of this comic:
I'll put a stake in the ground and say that few - if any - people saved their job, won the bonus, or got the promotion because they consistently used personal time to get work done. And for those few who did, I'd argue that long term it wasn't worth it for all the reasons discussed at the beginning of this essay.
It's also important to point out that managers, departments, or companies that require this level of work and commitment are usually dangerously toxic. If you find yourself in that situation, you will be doing your long-term happiness and career a favor, even if your bank account isn't happy in the short term.
To sum up: Learning to disconnect regularly and for a meaningful amount of time offers benefits to your physical health, your peace of mind, and even your career; and there are no insurmountable challenges in doing so, regardless of your business sector, years of experience, or discipline within IT.
The choice is yours. At the start of this series, I dared you to just sit and read this article without flipping over to check your phone, email, twitter feed, etc. Now, if you made it to the end of these essays without checking those blinking interrupti... I mean notifications, then you have my heartfelt gratitude as well as my sincere respect.
If you couldn’t make this far, you might want to think about why that is, and whether you are okay with that outcome. Maybe this is an opportunity to grow, both as an IT professional and as a person.
That's it folks! I hope you have gained a few insights that you didn't already have, and that you'll take a shot at making it work for you. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.