A few weeks ago I found myself at the beginning of a vacation.
Delayed flights and a customs mishap, a story for another day, got me in to Calgary much later than anticipated. A pitch black drive through windy roads finally got me to my hotel a little after 4 am. Hungry and exhausted from the days travels. But I made it, I was on vacation.
After a few hours of restless sleep I was too excited to stay in bed any longer. I was running on fumes but headed out into the brisk morning air with a good friend for some coffee and breakfast before we started to explore the Canadian Rockies.
Then my phone vibrated.
A friend, or enemy?
Let’s be honest, with all of us walking around with more technology in our cell phones than took Neil Armstrong to the moon, technology is inescapable.
Many people try and draw clear lines between their work and personal lives, except when it comes to technology. Too often even in the middle of an anniversary dinner with their spouse, an email ding can steal them away from the candle light and into the warm glow of their iPhone. Even a kid’s soccer game can easily become mistaken for a babysitter while a few extra emails get returned on a Saturday morning. We promise ourselves that we’ll only spend an hour working each night of our vacation, but end up settling for a martini dinner in the hotel room alone to put out just one more fire.
This ever creeping line of technology often blurs the line between work and play to the point that we’re never fully present with friends or family. Sitting over us like a giant Charlie Brown rain cloud, we’re constantly under threat of being ripped away from what we’re doing and sucked back into the “office.”
We convince ourselves that “we’re just too important” and that “I am expected to respond immediately.”
But I have a secret for you.
It’s all a lie.
You’re probably doubting me right now, so let’s get back to my previous story.
A vacation that almost wasn’t
“Hey I emailed you some flight options for next week. Could you look at those and let me know so I can get them booked today?”
Here I was, less than 16 hours into my vacation and work was already threatening to bust in and control it.
A problem at a jobsite I had just left only a few days earlier required some more input from me. They were trying to set me up for a flight back out, and the current option on the table was for me to fly back out of Kansas City only 7 hours after my flight in landed (provided there are no delays on either side).
Not what you want to be thinking about during your trip, so I needed to take a quick detour back to the hotel.
I got on my computer, found a flight direct to Philly from Canada, and made a call to tell the PM my new plan. Realized I’d forgotten to turn my auto-responder on, then I closed everything and put the phone on “airplane” mode.
It was time to enjoy my vacation.
And enjoy it I did.
While I was away
At the time that I stepped away… I currently had millions of dollars of construction going on at a project site in Philadelphia, a client was having issues with a generator that was installed last year in Puerto Rico, and I was trying to get a contract signed for some work in Denver.
A few years back I would have flipped out about just one of these things and spent each evening glued to my computer hammering away at my keyboard typing responses to emails.
Instead my Sunday night consisted of seeing a few elk and deer up-close and personal, laughing and joking with friends over a bottle of wine at dinner, followed by getting my grove on at a local club (side note: I’m a huge old school hip-hop fan).
I didn’t even check my email.
You know what? The jobsite didn’t grind to a halt, the generator got ordered, and the contract got signed.
Everyone is entitled to a vacation, and no one will get upset at you for enjoying yours.
[ctt template=”2″ link=”G8guV” via=”no” ]In the fight for #worklifebalance, the email autoresponder is your greatest weapon.[/ctt]
How to fight back in the work life balance war
When I first set out testing my theory that I could actually enjoy some time away from the office, I was met with fierce objections.
Not external, but internal ones.
Like many of you right now I thought there would be no way that my bosses, yet alone my clients, would ever accept me being what I viewed as “non-responsive.” But at the same time, I had some other desires pulling me the other way, should I find myself getting married and having kids someday… do I want to be an absent father? No.
Not just no but FUCK NO.
So, before my life got to that point, I needed to test my assumptions.
Sometimes you just have to leave the country
As luck would have it, last year a friend was having a little mastermind island event on a small island in the Caribbean.
That summer, Nevis would become the site of my first test.
Since the island was small, and the resort I was at had limited internet, I was left with no choice but to unplug and unburden myself from my work. This was going to require some upfront work, as if something went wrong on a project no one was going to know how to reach me.
During this and the next few trips I took, I’ve perfected a few ways to start winning a few battles in the work life balance fight.
These little battles started with vacations, but now I’ve got my weekends and evenings work-free as well. Think of this as your little chess map that you can use to start regaining your time away from the office.
Pick one or do them both, the choice is yours.
But the results feel amazing.
Operation: Vacation without Distractions
Step 1 – Gather your troops
For every project you’re on, there should be someone to cover you.
If you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, then your boss or Project Manager is your first stop. If you’ve got direct reports, then they’re perfect options should they be familiar with the project.
Make sure they understand what is going on for your projects and that they’ll be your point of contact.
Step 2 – Notify your allies
If I’m working on an important project with someone and they’re going to be unreachable for an extended period of time, I’d like to know.
So I return the favor.
My most important clients on my most important projects get either a short email or call. This can be brief, a quick “status update” with a “by the way.” Provided they aren’t expecting anything from you, it shouldn’t matter much but they’ll still be grateful.
Make sure you drop in who they can contact in case anything comes up.
Step 3 – Get technology on your side
The mistake most people make is that their autoresponder says something like:
Think about this from other’s perspectives. If I got something that said you’d get back to me shortly or would be checking emails, I wouldn’t try to find anyone else to solve my problem… I’d wait for you. And expect you to respond soon.
Also, too many people use the same autoresponder for people both inside and outside of their companies. Not me, I have a specific one for each one.
Now, this is what my autoresponder looks like:
If you’re a client you know exactly who to call.
These things can mean the difference between spending your vacation outside playing, or inside hunched over your computer screen paying way too much money for a gin and tonic.
I now choose play.
Operation: Leave Work at the Door
Before we begin, let me issue a word of caution. This is not for everyone.
Some people will have nervous twitches and cry uncontrollably realizing they’re not as important and needed as they thought. Still others may find themselves doing the unheard of and not even bringing their laptop home after a long day.
Consider yourself warned.
Step 1 – Get it out of your head
Engineering can be stressful, but there’s no reason it should follow you out the door.
Prior to completing this mission I often found myself spending my evening worrying about something that should have gotten out at the end of the day. Maybe something I didn’t get from a co-worker or vendor, so I’d often find myself frantically typing some hasty emails to try and ruin their nights as much as mine was.
If I was thinking about this thing while having drinks with my friends, then they need to too.
Misery loves company, right?
One day when I was procrastinating and got sucked into the Facebook time machine, I clicked on a link about falling asleep soundly. Tucked into the super unhelpful click bait article was something I could use.
Write it down.
If writing things down you are worried or thinking about can get them out of your head and you back to sleep, then maybe it’d have a similar affect for leaving the office.
If I don’t have something come 5 or 6 pm, there’s probably no chance I’m getting that day. Instead of getting myself worked up, I make sure I have it handy for the next day and won’t forget it. A simple notepad that’s always on my desk serves me well, but you’re smart enough to figure out your own routine.
Just try emptying your mind before you walk out the door.
Step 2 – Destroy your enemy
Before you throw your phone against the wall, I’m talking about your work email alone… you can keep your Clash of Clans and Pokémon GO.
So this is going to sound drastic, and it is.
If there’s one thing that I’ve garnered from the rise of social media, it’s that most humans have a fear of missing out. It’s this fear that keeps you checking Facebook or Twitter every time you feel the slightest twinge of boredom setting in.
The same is true for email. Too many are so convinced that they are vitally important and must be connected that their cell phone is merely an extension of their arm.
You know them, they’re often attend your meetings with their computers in front of them constantly typing away. You know that they’re not listening, and if a question comes their way you’re going to have to repeat it. That’s not someone to idealize.
Instead, my cellphone number is listed at the bottom of every email I send. My co-workers all have it, and they know that calling or texting is the fastest way to get a response.
I’ve stressed to each of my clients to give me a call if anything pressing comes up.
The result, I have a lot fewer emails than a lot of people I work with. I also rarely get calls after hours or on weekends. People know you’re away from the office, and they don’t want to disturb you, they’re less likely to call you unless it’s an actual emergency.
So, I answer emails when I’m in the office.
If I’m traveling and away from my computer during the day, I’ll go to my browser and check my email through there. The extra step makes it enough of a pain in the ass that I don’t bother with it outside of work hours 95% of the time.
The one thing I don’t have with this though, I am never interrupted with a DING when I’m spending time with my loved ones. When I’m with them, I’m theirs.
Occasionally there’s a call, but more often than not there’s an email awaiting me in my inbox come morning time.
And I deal with work, at work.