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  • Anna Weltner

The week I took control of my digital work life

Is it possible for a remote worker to take back some of the calm and focus of an analog life, without totally "unplugging?" In this piece, MeaningSphere content writer Anna Weltner reflects on the simplicity and autonomy of her less-connected upbringing and tries out small adjustments to her use of technology in the pursuit of greater balance at work.

Woman leans back at her desk and looks out window

I am just old enough to remember a world in which my parents, boss, teachers, and friends were generally unable to contact me. During this magical time, my parents accepted that they could not reach me when I was with friends. I was simply “out.” I worked in a hardware store and when I was not on the clock, I did not hear from or think very much about work. It would have been deeply unusual for my manager to phone me at home for any reason. By the time I got my first cell phone, I had already finished high school and spent a year in Europe. As a result, I have had the chance to get really, really lost. I have had the chance to be properly bored. I have had the chance to be truly independent.


It's a state of being I could not possibly manufacture today. The world has changed too much to allow such yawning gaps in communication. We have now collectively agreed to be reachable to our friends and colleagues at all hours. I now work a fully remote job where such connectivity is expected. Yet even when I was in college, working part-time in a coffee shop, I was becoming increasingly tethered to work. I would often switch on my phone after class to an alarming one-word, all-caps text from my boss: “ANTS!!" Followed shortly by: “When closing please put sugars in milk fridge.”


To be employed, to function at all in a society, without being highly connected and immediately reachable now seems impossible to me. Certainly my own job, a fully remote position managing social media and writing editorial content for a startup, would not be possible. And while I seem to remember my unplugged girlhood as a happier, less stressful time, there's honestly no way I'd go back to being lost that often. But what if there were a way to manage our relationship with technology just enough to reclaim some of the independence, the focus, and the calm that comes from not being immediately reachable?


I recently spent a little over a week trying out small adjustments to my use of technology in the pursuit of greater balance at work. I focused on work specifically as this is where my technology use is most concentrated, prolonged, and necessary.


The goal was not to "unplug" or "detox," but to find simple ways in which I could take back the control I’d unwittingly given up in the name of convenience and connectedness. My goal was to enjoy more focus and productivity at work, and experience less worry and frustration. I hope some of these learnings bring a bit of clarity to someone else.


A mobile phone, tablet, and notepad stacked on a keyboard

Monday: Baby steps


On the first day of reclaiming my freedom from work-based tech anxiety, actually I did very little to improve my digital work life. In fact, I forgot about this article completely until the middle of the day.


Fortunately, the week before I had downloaded reclaim.ai, an app that works with your online calendar to automatically find and block out time in your schedule for important things, like standing meetings, breaks, lunch, and focus time. I had synced it up with my personal calendar too, so that time I’ve blocked off in my personal calendar (for example, a doctor’s appointment) automatically shows up as a “personal commitment” in my work calendar. Then I’d connected the extension with Slack, so that coworkers can see when I’m in a meeting, having lunch, or doing focused work.


So on Monday, the app had gone ahead and sorted out my schedule for me. At first I bristled at this imposition. I mean, why should I let a robot tell me when to eat lunch, or when I should take a break? I realize that if this were a science fiction film, reclaim.ai would definitely be the villain. No genre writer would dare introduce an algorithm as a character without the algorithm at least making a decent attempt to wrest control over the human's life. So I'm a little ashamed to tell you, so far, that my experience flies in the face of the entire sci-fi canon.


After some tweaking to suit my daily work habits, the tool has made work a tad easier by reducing the time I would have spent updating my calendar, while scheduling me little bits of free time so I can take a break from looking at the screen. After a long meeting, a 15-minute event called “decompression time” is scheduled into my calendar. Anna needs a break to decompress, the description reads. Damn right I do. Look, I know there may be cynics out there, but to me this is proof that the AI loves me and wants me to be happy.


Inspired by this, I took a further baby step and decided to go analog during lunch. Instead of playing music from Spotify, I turned on the radio to 89.1, Portland’s jazz station. I opened the windows and listened to the sounds of Thelonious Monk mingle with birdsong and the idle conversations of dog-walkers. Outside, a gust of wind blew and a single, shrill “ding!” sent me reaching instinctively for my device, only to realize it was just the wind chimes on the balcony of the house across the road. I loosened my grip on my phone and went back to my sandwich.



Man sitting as his desk reading a book


Tuesday: Setting intentions


Despite the surprising non-malevolence of my new scheduling algorithm, I realized that reigning in technology's grip on my working life was not going to be as simple as downloading an app. I still struggle with the overwhelming nature of remote work: since I am theoretically reachable all the time, and since I have so many platforms to check, it's pretty easy to fall into distraction "loops." It goes like this: a question on Slack pulls me out of the zone of writing a blog post. To find the answer to the question I go into my inbox, but once there I notice a new email asking me to review a slide deck before a meeting tomorrow…and pretty soon not only have I broken my creative flow, but I am now several steps removed from the task that was meant to be my main priority for the day. When I come back to writing the blog post, my train of thought is totally lost.


Then there's the other struggle, the one that occurs when I'm (supposed to be) offline, but feel the need to check in and...help out. Wouldn't it be cool if I did not compulsively do that?


That's why, on Tuesday, I did what I should have done on Monday: I decided to set some intentions that would allow me a more balanced use of technology. But first, jotted down what was and wasn’t working about my relationship to tech at work in order to understand how I could improve it.


What’s working:

  • Since my job is completely remote, I can maintain autonomy and independence in how (and where) I get things done.

  • I can collaborate easily in real time with co-workers around the world.

What's not working:

  • The many platforms we use for remote collaboration get me overwhelmed and distracted, sucking up my energy and attention.

  • Since I am part-time, and since our team works asynchronously, there are often others working while I’m away. Because I can still see and access work messages, I am tempted to engage when not at work.

What’s striking about these two lists is that the positives and negatives I identified are essentially the same. The easy, real-time collaboration I enjoy at work becomes a pain during my time off. The remote work environment I cited as a positive comes with endless apps and platforms to monitor, leading to distraction loops. The “autonomy and independence” I value becomes a curse when I realize I’m the only one responsible for protecting and maintaining my daily priorities against workplace distractions that can feel equally important in the moment.


Finally, having clarified the tensions I was encountering, I was able to create a set of intentions for improving my relationship to technology at work.


Pair of glasses on a laptop computer in a dark room

My intentions:

  1. Maintain a hard stop on work communications when I’ve logged off. Remove or reduce mobile access to work platforms if necessary.

  2. Turn off Slack notifications during focus time at work, and during breaks.

  3. Use my Google calendar to schedule in energizing, tech-free activities for the week (such as a walk to a coffee shop, or a workout), instead of waiting for free time to fit them in.

  4. Keep on the lookout for more tools like Reclaim that relieve me of unnecessary fatigue or stress at work. Find new ways to use existing tools to make work more enjoyable.

  5. Purge my inbox, trash, desktop, bookmarks, apps, and extensions once a month so there’s no virtual “clutter” causing ambient distraction, stress, or fatigue at work.


Wednesday: Follow-through


On Wednesday it was time for the scariest part: putting the plan into action.


Before I share my experience, I should address a pretty crucial part of this process, which is the adaptability of my company and teammates to my newfound work-life balance. Now, I had an easy time with this one. My company's raison d'être is to enable people to experience more meaningful work, and I also had this article as an excuse for not being as available as I used to be. So far, I have not encountered any resistance at my workplace.


Of course, the culture at your place of work might require more careful or deliberate communication. You might even request some time to speak with a team lead or manager; not only to share your broader intentions of finding balance, but also to clarify how a few specific changes will help you perform better. For example, if you don't want to be texted after-hours you could say, "Could we keep the conversation in email/a Slack channel? I'm working on being more present in my free time, and I want to be able to answer work messages when I'm in the right headspace." There are many articles, like this one, on the topic of communicating boundaries at work.


In my case, however, the only person standing between me and better tech boundaries was...me.


Fortunately, returning to my list of intentions from the previous day, I realized I’d intuitively ordered them from the least to the most hassle. Starting with the first item on the list, I resolved not to look at work messages while I was away. I removed my work email account from my phone, and snoozed my Slack app at the end of the day.


In response to #2 on my list, I decided to switch off personal and work notifications during my afternoon “focus time.” Rather than go cold turkey, I set myself one-hour increments of uninterrupted work time, after which I would take a break, stretch, and check for messages. Already, this has reduced the number of "distraction loops" I find myself in.


Now it was time to finesse my online calendar, #3 on my list of intentions. Reclaim had already put in short breaks in my Google calendar after my meetings, but I added in additional “appointments" to allow myself to recharge: a workout class directly after work, a coffee date with myself, and a long lunch with a friend to break up the loneliness of the remote workday. I often start work around 7:30 am to maximize time with co-workers in other time zones, but rarely do I think to be more creative with the flexibility this asynchronous schedule allows. Finishing the day at 3:30 pm is great, but so is having a nice, unhurried lunch with a friend, coming back refreshed, and finishing work by 5. Adding in these little treats to my work calendar gave me the break I needed from screens, relieved me from isolation, and signalled to myself and others that I was invested in making work enjoyable, not just in going through the motions of the day.


Young woman working in a coffee shop

Taking control of my schedule and notifications created fewer distractions and gave me some focus time back. But now it was getting to the end of my Wednesday afternoon--my version of Friday at 5 pm. It's a tricky spot since I work part-time, and want to ensure I don’t leave leave work undone for others. I sometimes work too long on this day, past the point of being very productive. But on this Wednesday I had already booked a workout class right after work so...I just had to leave on time.


After logging off, I often worry about urgent emails languishing in my inbox, but I think setting automated “out of office” messages every week is…just a bit dramatic. I settled on adding this sentence to my email signature: "I work Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday."


Now when I write back after being away, everyone will see my signature and go, "Oh, no wonder I didn't hear back on Thursday. She must have excellent boundaries." I'd found a new way to use an existing tool, part of #4 on my list.



The weekend and beyond: Taking the transformation long-term


At last, the weekend was in view. (That's right, as a part-timer I had to compress a week-long transformation into three days. I'm sure everyone will be doing it this way in the future.) There was only one item on my list still untouched: #5, the purge. During my short "week" at work, I did not have time to tackle all the clutter that inexplicably accumulates around my digital life: the downloads folder, the desktop, the subscriptions, the "sort out later" folders. Instead, since this intention will require more time and ongoing management, I am now committed to working on it week by week rather than in a quick sprint.


However, in the spirit of #5, I made one final, gutsy move before signing off. In a moment of recklessness or bravery, I deleted all my unread work emails (here’s how to do that in Gmail). I figure if I was going to read them, I would have done so by now. As I write, this, I have zero (0) unread emails. With this small act, I feel elated and free. I am a teenager again, shameless and untethered by digital guilt.


 

Anna Weltner is a writer and content curator at MeaningSphere.


Image credit: Shutterstock


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