Part 1 of a 3-part series on maintaining a healthy distance from work: How to set boundaries between your work and personal life

Disconnect.

There’s plenty of evidence to support the fact that recent advances in communication technology have increased workplace productivity, allowed employees flexible work schedules, and made it possible to communicate instantly with individuals across the globe within milliseconds. That’s all wonderful, yes. But (and there’s always a “but”) the same technology that seems to be giving us more freedom in our professional lives may actually be stripping us of our free time and merging our personal and professional lives until we can barely tell them apart. The main issue with this constant access to work communications is the implication (read: misconception) that we have to respond immediately to any message we receive.

The Journal of Pyschosocial Research on Cyberspace published a study conducted in 2010 by Erasmus University in Rotterdam entitled The Impact of E-mail Communication on Organizational Life. The authors observe that “a smartphone can also intrude into family life since you stay connected (literally) with your work during the evening hours. … The opportunity of accessibility anywhere, anytime seems to change into availability everywhere, all the time.”

As young women in the workplace, many of us PYPs are looking for ways to prove our value and commitment to our company in order to get ahead in our careers. So what’s the big deal if we have to respond to a few work emails in the evenings or on the weekends if it proves to our bosses we’re dedicated employees? Here’s the catch, according to the Erasmus study: many smartphone users may not be aware of how much time they spend on work during evening hours. It’s easy to underestimate the degree of work-home interference, since the smartphone intrudes gradually into your private life.

When I told my friends and family that my new company would be buying me the iPhone 4S and paying my monthly phone bill, I’ll admit a very small part of me reveled in their jealous exclamations of, “No fair!” or “I want to work at your company!” But my excitement was quickly overshadowed by the looming implication that if my company is paying for me to be available anytime of day or night, I better be available at any time– day or night. And even though I haven’t been crushed by the responsibility yet, I’ve certainly received work-related email responses via my new phone late into the night, and tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to maintain a conversation with coworkers at lunch as they compulsively check their smartphone for emails.

Trying to be available 24/7 makes you worse at your job.

Here’s one more quote from the Erasmus study that may help to drive this point home: “It is likely that the smartphone with its always-on culture disturbs the important process of recovery and may even lead to a decrease in productivity and performance levels on the long run.” So if you really want to impress your bosses, then take a well-deserved break from your work email or company smartphone when you’re off the clock. In the long run, it may actually help get you that raise or promotion because you’ll be mentally fresh and able to work at your highest level each day.

Step back and take an honest inventory of how much your work cuts into your personal time. Are you checking your phone for that urgent response email from your boss when you’re out to dinner with friends? Do you sleep with your phone inches from your face so you’ll be sure to hear the “beep!” of a new message? Have you ever actually counted up the hours you spend a week checking email, working on projects, or thinking about deadlines when you’re away from the office? It’s important for all of us to remember that time away from work – and yes, that includes mental breaks from work, not just physically leaving the office – is critical to our overall wellbeing and productivity.

What steps can we take to prevent work from encroaching into our personal lives? How do we keep from responding to work messages when they keep beeping through our phone during our off hours? Try these suggestions to get the most out of your “me” time for your own sanity’s sake AND so you can kick even more butt once you’re back at the office:

  • If possible, separate your work and home phones. Many young professionals are using their mobile phone as a home/work/cell catchall device. Forgoing a landline and letting your company cell double as a personal phone sounds logical – it completely eliminates your monthly phone bill! But it may be worth your mental sanity to have separate work and personal phones. That way you can turn your work phone off (and keep it off!) during your personal time so you don’t feel pressured to stop whatever you’re doing and respond to that email immediately.
  • Turn it off. Set strict boundaries on when you will or will not be available to your boss/coworkers/clients – and stick to them! If you set this precedent early on, your colleagues will come to know your “off” schedule and won’t expect a response from you during those times. Set a specific time each night when you will turn off your work phone or stop responding to emails, and keep your phone off (and no, vibrate doesn’t count) at night so it doesn’t wake you up. I promise your sleep and personal health are more important than responding to that message ASAP.
  • Give yourself the weekend. In addition to giving yourself at least a few hours each night to mentally disconnect from your work, it’s important to take a mini-vacation – both mentally and physically – from your work life on the weekends as well. Your weekends give you a chance to catch up on your personal errands, relax, and recharge your brain for the coming week. So take advantage of the break and disconnect from all work communications. Otherwise you may feel like you never left the office, which is a surefire route to professional burnout and discontent.
  • Plan phoneless activities. If there’s an event you’ve been looking forward to, or even if you just want some more quality time with your friends and family, don’t bring your phone to these events. It sounds crazy to go anywhere without a phone nowadays, but you’ll be amazed at how much more focused you are on the activity or the conversation with your best friend if your phone isn’t constantly buzzing in your pocket. What could be more of a downer than getting a deadline reminder email from your boss when you’re at a concert or hearing about a friend’s engagement over coffee?

Mobile communication devices aren’t negative in and of themselves, of course, but the pressures and heightened expectations that can come with their use in the workplace may cause employees to compulsively check their work messages even long after they’ve left the office. It’s up to you to set boundaries, exert self-control, and carve out time for you and your personal interests and goals. As for me, I’m excited about my new fancy work phone, but there’s no way I’m letting it take over my life.