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17 June 2014

Allison was asked to speak about how to “Unplug” at a University of Virginia employee conference last week. Today she’s summarizing what she shared with participants about how to disconnect to achieve more balance and productivity.

Tags: allison read, balance, change, email, sleep, uva, vacation, writing

I was so delighted when I was asked to be the closing speaker for “The Hoos Cruise: All aboard! New adventures for productivity and work / life balance.” Prior to my post-lunch, 40-minute talk participants were able to choose from concurrent workshops under the headings Reboot, Revive, Re-energize, Refresh and Relax. There were so many speakers I’ve learned from in the past and new workshops I wish I could have attended myself that it was a bit daunting to figure out the best way to close out the day. As I tried to figure out what to say, I decided to share the tips from my Choosing Balance and Leadership course that seem to most resonate with past participants. I’ve summarized my suggestions below and included links to additional resources.

My overall message was that first we need to calmly observe ourselves and our behavior when it comes to balance. There’s no need to make any quick changes right away. Rather, I like for people to gently notice what’s going on in their lives and start considering what is and isn’t working for them. As they make these observations, I encourage them to be kind in how they talk to themselves. Instead of saying, “I’m a stupid failure who has been trying to lose the same 20 pounds for 20 years,” I’d like us to ask ourselves curious questions like, “What makes it hard for me to lose weight? What do I need to do to make this more manageable? Whose help do I need? How could I reward myself along the way?”

Then I encouraged participants to do some reading about why it’s so darn hard to change. We generally know what we’re doing that’s not working for us, but for some reason it’s hard to turn that knowledge into action. Switch by brothers Chip and Dan Heath is one of the most helpful books I know for explaining why change is tricky and how to set ourselves up for success. Rachel wrote a post about Switch back in 2010 that I think will give you an idea of why it should definitely be on your bookshelf.

Rather than making big, huge long term goals, I asked my audience to consider doing short experiments and then evaluating their results. "I will work out at 6:00am for the rest of my life even though I hate working out in the morning" is different than "I will work out at 6:00am for five weeks and see what I think about that time of day." In his article, Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, Stewart Friedman explains why manageable experiments give us a better chance at success. Additionally, the conference organizers wrapped up the day after I spoke with Matt Cutt's well-known three minute and 30 second TED Talk, Try Something New for 30 Days.

Once you've established your goals for change, it's important to be disciplined and have willpower and Switch will show you how to set yourself up for success. However, too often our internal dialogue when it comes to making changes is unsupportive and even downright hateful. When a small child learns to walk, people cheer, encourage, get down on their knees, and offer a steadying finger to hang onto. If the child falls down and starts to cry, no one yells at the little one and says, "Get up you loser. In this family we walk early and well. You're a failure and will never figure this out." Many of the changes we're trying to make in our adult lives are as hard as learning to walk, but rather than encouraging ourselves we scream and berate internally. Please stop doing that.

We then talked about how our bodies need a real break every 90 minutes and that even a few deep breaths and marching in place can go a long way in helping us to recharge for the next 90 minutes of work. A walk around the building or staring at some outdoor green space for a bit is even better. Too often we plow through emails for so long that by the time we stand up to go to the bathroom our legs are numb and we find ourselves close to having a bathroom emergency! If your brain needs more convincing about the efficacy of breaks and how to take them, check this out.

Next I asked everyone to consider their relationships with their devices (computers, Smartphones, readers, etc.) I like all those things and think they’ve brought wonderful stuff into our lives, but I want us to make conscious choices about our boundaries relative to these gadgets. I recommended people read Sleeping with your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work with their colleagues at work and family members. Then I encouraged everyone to start having conversations with their coworkers about how available everyone actually needs to be. Sometimes teams get into bad habits that aren’t actually necessary, but it takes reading something like Sleeping With Your Smartphone and having some candid conversations to make any changes. At home, it may be as simple as declaring device-free times or making sure your device doesn't come to the bedroom. Everyone's solution is different, but it's time to start thinking about whether or not all of this connectivity is serving us.

Additionally, I talked about a better way to start your day. Rather than turning on the computer and letting email run your day. I think it’s a good idea to first think about what we want the day to be like and then start checking email. Pausing for 5-10 minutes of what’s called “freewriting” every morning can actually help you to get more done and feel more satisfied about what you’ve accomplished at the end of each day. Read this post to learn about this new (and short) way to be strategic about your day and get more done with less anxiety.

I reminded people that it’s so important to take their vacations and even more important to avoid what Matt Richtel calls “vacation sabotage.” I’m happy to report that I got an enthusiastic, "YES!" when I looked at the U.Va. Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer, Susan Carkeek, and asked, “You want people to take the vacation they’ve earned, and be truly disconnected while they’re away, right?” Research abounds that we'll be better at work if we can disconnect on the weekends, in the evenings, periodically throughout the day, and especially on vacation, and yet a new report shows that many of us aren’t taking the vacations we’ve rightfully earned or can’t stop doing what Richtel calls "flirting with work" while we’re away. I recently summarized all of my past blog posts about why vacations matter and how to truly disconnect. As you start thinking about your vacations and imagine that you’ll check email so you can “keep up” and aren’t “slammed” when you get back, I hope you’ll check out this advice and help yourself have a more restorative experience the next time you get away.

Finally, I ended with a stern but, I hope, caring speech about the importance of sleep and how it might be the very most important thing we can do when it comes to taking care of ourselves, feeling good enough to do all the other important things in our lives, and having the necessary mindfulness to know when it’s time to unplug. You can find all my best thoughts about why sleep matters and how to have good sleep hygiene here. Many participants came up to me after my talk and said some version of, “Yup. That’s it. I’m only getting six hours and if I'm honest, sometimes four or five. You’ve convinced me that this is medically a bad idea and I know I feel terrible many days. Sleep is what I’m going to work on first.” (Yay I say! Mission accomplished!! Being rested is truly my most important "unplug" message.)


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