Disconnecting From Work is a Skill We Need to Rebuild

Almost all software work used to happen in office buildings. Engineers commuted there, booted up their desktop computers, did their work, then turned them off and went home. There was no way to perform work anywhere else because the machinery needed stayed stowed away in company offices, inaccessible from outside.

The rise of laptops, VPNs, and collaboration technology brought software work into the home. This enabled people living outside of expensive cities to join the high-tech workforce, and allowed physically disabled people to avoid a difficult commute, among other benefits. Unfortunately, it also came at a cost: for many people, work is now a constant fixture in their life.

Complete disconnection from work is rare (and getting rarer)

With the encroachment of work into our homes, the line between our personal and professional lives has blurred. Quick checks of Slack before bed and phones beeping with notifications from work are now commonplace, including on weekends. This pattern has been further glorified with the rise of “hustle culture” and an increasing worship of workaholism.

This is causing stress and anxiety, and leading to a permanent feeling of being interruptible for work. If our jobs can disrupt family life, rest, and hobbies, then working becomes a higher priority than everything else. And this means we’re always working.

Disconnection from work actually improves productivity

“If you can’t fit everything you want to do within 40 hours per week, you need to get better at picking what to do, not work longer hours.”
Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work

We’re not more productive when we’re always connected to work. In fact, people do less creative thinking and are less innovative when they’re always “heads down” in tasks. Without time to disconnect, we focus on short-term, reactive work and less on strategic, longer-term planning.

Unconstrained time means that work will be less effective. Instead of thinking, “I only have one hour to focus on completing this task”, we now find ourselves content to defer unfinished work until after kids are asleep, or during lunch, or at the weekend. Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands to fill the time allotted”, and we see it proven true every night in homes across the globe.

Time constraints improve focus and flow. Microsoft Japan famously tested a 4-day week and found that productivity increased by 40%. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, writes that “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”

Unconstrained, always-connected work cultures are bad for business, but many employers have yet to learn this lesson.

Tips for Daily Disconnection

Disconnecting at the end of a work day is important for engineers or anyone working on intellectually demanding tasks. Unconscious cognition is a phenomenon where the brain quietly solves problems while doing something routine. Most programmers have experienced it, and enjoyed the delight of solving a difficult debugging problem while taking a shower or doing laundry. The brain simply needs time away from work to make it more effective at it.

To fully disconnect at the end of a work day, try the following:

  • Set a schedule for when you stop working each day, and stick to it. Accept that whatever doesn’t get done by the end will just have to wait until the next day.
  • Once you have your daily schedule set, keep it in mind during the work day. Its value is more than just as an alarm! It helps remind you of your personal capacity for tasks. Keeping a healthy schedule will prevent you starting a multi-hour focus project right before your work day ends.
  • Get 8 hours of sleep every night. A full night’s sleep allows your brain to fully process the day’s events, better retain new memories, and make creative solutions more within your reach the next day.
  • If you work from home, use a room that you can walk out of and shut closed outside of work hours. If you don’t have a dedicated office at home, at least hide your work computer when the day is over. The ceremony helps make it official that your work day has ended, and you are transitioning into home life.
  • If you have work apps on your phone, change them to never display notifications as red dots. This small tweak has a great cognitive benefit, as your interactions with your apps change from “push” to “poll”. Instead of the apps pushing interruptions into your world, you decide when to dedicate your time to opening them and seeing if you have new messages. Here’s how some of my work apps look on my phone, regardless of how many unread messages and notifications I have:


    My phone always looks delightfully calm, and I decide when I want to focus my attention on work apps, not the other way around.

Taking Fully Disconnected Time Off

People who stick to a healthy daily work routine have a great foundation for taking a number of fully disconnected days away from the grind. Similarly, the people who are “always available”  also tend to be the people who “check in with the team” during their vacations.

To take a fully disconnected vacation, you can’t read any emails, send any Slack messages, or phone your coworkers. You literally can’t work. If you keep glancing at your inbox, your brain will remain in “work mode”, and you won’t get all the benefits of rest. You work hard to earn time off, but if you pay attention to work during it, you’re just squandering it.

I have never heard someone come back unhappy from a fully disconnected vacation. But the people who continually check in on work often return to say, “I could really do with another week off…”.

If you want to truly disconnect on your next vacation, these ideas can help:

  • First, you should actually take time off, and do so regularly. If you only take one big vacation at the end of the year to avoid losing accrued time off, then you could easily burn out during the summer. Plus, it sets a healthy precedent for your coworkers and encourages them to do the same.
  • Working in technology does mean that you might have to get contacted in a true emergency. Set rules for interruption with your manager and team to make sure everyone is clear on the criteria for doing so. I regularly tell my team and manager the following right before I disconnect for my own time off:
    •  “If you need to reach me, please text me since I won’t be checking email or Slack. Please only do that for something that only I can help with that cannot wait for my return.”
  • Set your automatic out-of-office reply to set clear expectations for your availability. For example, don’t just say, “I’ll be back on May 4th”. Instead, state that you won’t be available until you return, that you will read their message when you’re back, and refer them to someone else in the meantime.
  • If you use Slack, change your display name to show your return date. That way, your coworkers will see that you’re away much more easily than by checking your Slack status (which is generally ignored by most people in my experience). For example, when I’m off, my Slack name changes to something that makes people very aware of my availability:
  • If you have work apps on your phone or tablet, log out of your accounts or delete the apps entirely. The temptation to check your messages will quickly disappear if you can’t easily do so!

Disconnecting is Good Leadership

If you’re a manager, disconnecting fully is also a great way to test how well you’ve been delegating responsibilities and training your team.

If you disappear on a vacation and your team can’t get things done without you while you’re out, that’s a sign that you need to enable them further. Empowering your people in those tasks will free you up to work on more initiatives, and grow their careers in the process. It could also increase your opportunities or chance of promotion, because nobody wants to promote someone out of a role if it would disrupt their entire team.

Most importantly, if you lead a team, you should set the standard for how your staff should disconnect while taking time off. The way you act will greatly influence how others approach it. Making these expectations explicit by writing them down in your team’s wiki would be even better (and would be a major step towards practicing Sustainable Development).

Disconnecting is becoming harder to do with modern technology and “always on” expectations. But if you develop the skill enough, you will find that disconnecting regularly will become a wonderful productivity boost, and help you to work in a healthy way for the long term.

Photo by Fajrina Adella on Unsplash

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