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The Professional Habit That Is Not-So-Secretly Draining Your Sanity

A few weeks ago, I was on vacation with my boyfriend in the Caribbean. We were staying on a friend’s family member’s boat, and were to spend four days doing nothing but snorkeling, going to the beach, eating fresh fish, reading, lounging, and drinking light beer. I left for the airport at 4 AM, sans laptop or international phone plan, determined to chill the hell out.

Of course, it wasn’t as relaxing as I’d planned. I couldn’t let go of the idea that there were always going to be things for me to do — emails to respond to, articles to write and proof, invoices to send. I started going a little stir-crazy without Wi-Fi; I’d ask Peter to use his phone to check my email several times per day, because international data didn’t cost extra with his phone carrier. And even more often than I’d allow myself to ask to check my email, I’d find myself distracted thinking about work — remembering something I’d have to do when I got back home, even though there was nothing I could do about it then and there.

This is by no means a new phenomenon, and it’s certainly not limited to the times I’m actually on vacation — the same thing happens when I’m simply relaxing at home at the end of a day. I’ve read plenty of articles about the increase in individuals’ inability to “leave work at the office.” That people wear their busy-ness as a badge of honor isn’t something to aspire to; we all know that being overworked is not cool, or something to aspire to. Yet, even though I’ve turned off email notifications on my phone, and make it a point to focus a lot of my time and energy on non-work-related matters, I still find myself fighting the urge to check in every other minute when I’m not working. I’ve spent many an evening working next to Peter, grateful that he has a hockey game or terrible SyFy show to occupy him so I can get caught up before the next day.

I know my best work is done when all I have to focus on is work, and not the fact that work is distracting me from everything else. I’m a freelancer, but I still try and keep to a normal, 9-5-ish work schedule. It’s great to be afforded the flexibility to change my schedule if necessary, but for day-to-day living, I find that it’s just not sustainable to always be on the clock. Yet I still find myself working well past dinnertime — sometimes because I took a break during the afternoon, sometimes because I just feel like there’s too much to do, but most often because I decided to check my email and found something I needed to do that simply “couldn’t wait.”

But after reading this Harvard Business Review article, I learned that this habit is apparently not just detrimental your own mental wellbeing, but it could mean terrible things for the people you work for, too. After researching about how a lack of “recovery period” — that is, time spent away from work and work-related activities — is bad for people’s health and safety, the authors, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan, are taking the notion a step further in their own study:

Our study will use a large corporate dataset from a major medical company to examine how technology extends our working hours and thus interferes with necessary cognitive recovery, resulting in huge health care costs and turnover costs for employers.

Their whole argument is based on the idea that, in order to perform well at work (and elsewhere), you need to have the energy to do so, which you gain from recovery periods. As Achor and Gielan write, we’ve somehow bought into a common misconception of what it means to be resilient. We pride people on being able to work long hours without breaks; we talk about “all-nighters” as a sign of true dedication. But to be most successful and productive at work, we need to take adequate breaks — both internal ones, such as periodic cognitive breaks throughout the day, and external ones, like taking your mind completely off of work so you can get a full night’s sleep. Just as the writers are seeking to further prove in their forthcoming study, the benefits of recovery periods are not just for the individual, but for entire communities and companies. They even cite Ariana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution:

We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we spend at work, adds up to 11 days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280.

Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in what I’m working on that I think it’s the most important thing I could be doing in the moment, even if it’s completely outside of work hours, or I’m not even working on a deadline (okay, it’s often because I’m working on a deadline). Checking your email or Twitter for work feels like a productive thing to do, but in reality, we all need breaks. The discussion of resilience in this article seems to be, in my opinion, a lot like something else: Mindfulness. The writers recommend, as so many do, taking time away for yourself during the day, by eating lunch away from your desk, or taking a pointedly non-work-related break for a few minutes every once in a while, so that work can be your focus while you’re at your desk. Mindfulness holds the same thing to be true — that we should be more present in every action, including work.

As I’m writing this, I don’t feel like I’m in the most mindful position. I’m eating while typing, and I’m probably going to do the same thing come dinnertime tonight. I can’t help but feel overworked sometimes, but I know that it’s also partially my own fault. Perhaps I take on too many things at once, but most likely, I’m still a work in progress, and I haven’t figured out my own productivity yet. I can’t help but go back and forth checking social media, because I don’t want to miss yet another piece of disturbing news. But I also don’t want my own work to suffer because of it. So maybe, this is the mindset change I need — to think of my recovery periods not as for exclusively my own benefit, but for the benefit of the people I work for, too. If we can place a monetary value on our own restfulness, I’ll gladly go for another nap.

Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at holly@thefinancialdiet.com!

Image via Unsplash

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  • Summer

    I struggle with this a bit as well, though my “eep I could be working right now!” mentality tends to come more from the fact that if I’m not working, I’m not getting paid (hourly and no PTO, womp womp) than it does from a particular love for or dedication to my tasks. I’m usually able to talk myself down from the ledge by reminding myself that having the scheduling flexibility to take time off when I want is a benefit in and of itself, so if I AM taking time I may as well relax and enjoy myself, but yeah. It can be tough. I’m also a fan of checking email at unconventional hours (like right before I put the phone down to go to bed) so as to save myself from being bombarded in the morning, but that has its own set of drawbacks.

    Unrelated, I notice you linked to The Expatriates – so good!! I read it in a day.

    • Holly Trantham

      Love that book! I just randomly got it in an airport last month.

  • Judith

    A good night’s sleep is one of the best self-care routines for me. If only I didn’t feel I just *need* to read another article.

    But really, when I started working a score of jobs ago, I was as overeager as you can imagine and then some. Then a couple of jobs later, after I left them all out of simple exhaustion I realized the weirdly simple thing that I should relax sometimes, maybe. It’s hard when you want to be productive, but you also have to work against that instinct so that you don’t exhaust yourself.

  • Tara

    I’m in a union so I have a mandated lunch hour, and when I actually take it away from my desk, with a book, or going out with a friend or something, I always feel so much better. And yet most of the time I default to grabbing a sandwich and sitting at my desk, alternately scrolling through emails or the news. It’s so hard to break the habit of constantly being “on” and turning it “off” in the name of self-care.

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