Is it possible just to ‘switch off’?

Photo above by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

According to Buffer, one of the toughest things about working remotely is the ability to stop and unwind. It is common to find ourselves working later, just finishing one more thing off, leaving our laptop open to surreptitiously check emails, or bringing it to bed so we can just finish off what we need to do.

Image taken from Buffer’s State of Remote Work / 2019

I have been working remotely with the altMBA for the last 20 months, with around 200 students and 35 coaches in each session using Slack, Discourse and Zoom daily. The connection these online platforms bring over the course of each session is phenomenal, and I have made friends for life just through these mediums. At the same time, I found myself getting addicted to the connection, and checking in far more often than I really needed to.

I knew in theory about the dopamine-driven feedback loops that reward checking notifications; as I was digging around to research this post, I rediscovered the name for my behaviour that I’d learned in a psychology lecture theatre all those years ago. Operant conditioning is what keeps us checking in with social media sites or the news or emails or those games that grow vegetables while you sleep. If we perceive a reward to be delivered at random (an @mention, a nugget of information, something interesting or funny or relevant to us), and if checking for the reward comes at little cost, we end up checking in habitually. That’s the root of something like a gambling addiction. Slack works in a similar way. The thrill of chiming in, receiving almost immediate feedback about what you said, and the reward of being connected combine to make it extremely hard to resist checking in more often that is usually necessary.

But it wasn’t until I heard Anne Helen Petersen, in conversation with Ezra Klein, describe why she feels the pull of something like Slack specifically in relationship to her work, that I understood not just about my desire to check in, but what it was that kept me posting. Petersen is interviewed with Derek Thompson on The Ezra Klein Show about long-reads they each published around the same time last year addressing similar issues: our relationship to work and identity, capitalism morphing into the dominant religion of the last fifty years, and productivity becoming the way we measure human value.

“My friend calls Slack LARPing your own job,” Petersen quips, drawing a knowing laugh from the other two. She goes on to explain that LARP stands for Live Action Role-Play, a type of game where people play fictional characters in real life. This is essentially calling out the performative nature of Slack, and can be applied to most of our work administration in general, even more so now that many of us are not working in front of others in a shared physical space anymore.

“You are performing that you’re checking in or that you’re part of a conversation, and I feel that compulsion sometimes where, ‘Oh, I should say something in Slack so that people know that I’m working,’” Petersen continues.

Oh, I should [_______] so that people know that I’m working.

As soon as she said that, I understood. I could hear those words, and I could hear the emotions tied up underneath that sentence that I often experience: responsibility, guilt, fear, indignance, pettiness, resentment, the desire for recognition, and the weight of expectations, real or imagined… Underneath that was my fear that by disconnecting too much, either I’ll miss something, or I’ll be noticed as not engaging online, and therefore not working – either way, I would be deemed ‘not good enough’.

Common justifications I’ve both seen and used to reinforce this cycle of behaviour:

It’ll make tomorrow so much easier.
I need to be available.
I want my colleagues to know I’m working hard.
It seems like everyone else is doing it.
If I don’t check in, they’re going to notice.
The work won’t get itself done.
This is “extremely important”.
This is what I’m supposed to be doing.

The two guests on the podcast then go on to lament about the fact that ideally, our work should be evidence that we’re working, not the ‘performative’ aspects that come with working, such as attending meetings, answering emails, posting on Slack and being available 24/7. But, as Thompson says a little later, “For a lot of people, the work isn’t real until you Slack about it.”

When I tell myself these things, I’m acting like I don’t have a choice.

I always have a choice.

I haven’t mastered understanding this. At all. Always, there will be more to do. Always, there will be more we could have done. Let’s be honest: “switch off” is a misleading phrase. There is no switch that would cause us not to keep thinking about what’s on our mind. That is why people often remark that the first few days of a holiday do not really feel like a holiday at all. We cannot turn concentration or care on and off. Ringfencing what we think about is not easy, and especially at the moment, the boundaries between work and everything else are incredibly blurry. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

Anne Lamott has a beautiful analogy about this in her book Bird by Bird.

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper-train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbour’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”

Noticing our thoughts and trying to bring them back is a habit we can try. I am trying to cultivate balance and internal quiet and enough-ness. My behaviour and thought patterns rarely mirror these intentions. But from one person trying to give this a go to (presumably, if you’re still reading) another, I did want to share a small habit that, when I remember it, keeps me grounded.

When I find myself thinking of work when I don’t need to be, I tell my work, as kindly as I can muster, “You do not get this.” My work does not get to be there when I’m out exercising. When I’m chatting to my friends. When I’m writing. When I’m cooking. When I’m having dinner. When I’m reading. When I’m trying to fall asleep. When I have shut down the computer and put the phone upstairs, when I’m trying to enjoy those times I’ve carved out for myself, “You do not get this.”

This phrase my way of trying to find balance, and trying to carve out the mental equivalent of a breath of fresh air, and trying to acknowledge that I am not what I do or produce, and trying to learn the beauty of unproductiveness.

My work does not get that open space I have carved out specifically to disconnect. What’s more, it’s best for both of us if it doesn’t show up there.

The mantra doesn’t work every time, but rather than drop-kicking the puppy over the fence, this is my way of gently leading it back to the paper to try again. “You do not get this,” is a helpful reminder that I do not have to be held hostage by my thoughts or by my work, and neither do you.