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Learning to disconnect - the hardest skill of all?

July 6, 2021

You learned to walk, drive, navigate difficult conversations, fix a blocked sink, and keep at least some of your plants alive. But when the holidays start, or even just that first day off in a while. Have you learned how to truly disconnect?

This is not an article for the Zen masters, but for those of us who are still struggling at times to find a way to quiet the mind, leave work behind, fade out the background of global uncertainty, and just be. For many of us, this is the hardest thing we have ever had to do.

In a culture of busyness, catching up with friends happens "tomorrow", starting that new hobby happens "when I get this project out of the way", and for those of you with children running wild on top of all the rest, we salute you.

So how do we do it? Leave work truly behind and switch off without returning to work feeling like we need another holiday to recover? For those of us in the world of education, leaving our work at work is not straightforward, when we have people in our charge and care, or targets to hit that just might mean success or failure for the new course your institution launched. What's the secret?

Ask yourself where your boundaries lie and why

Oh, right, is that all? Yes, we know this is something many of us find challenging, but hear us out. There are certain personality types that complicate this, but when you recognize that this is happening, it can get a little easier to apply the brakes. See if you recognize yourself in one of these.

The insecure overachiever is a common one. This great article by HBR titles "if you're so successful, why are you still working 70 hours a week?" is a great provocation. We are not here to psychoanalyze, but it stands to reason that those of us experiencing insecurity, imposter syndrome, people-pleasing tendencies and working in cultures where "hard work" means long hours, it is easy to see why we just can't stop.

The trouble is, there is always more to do. Look at your "to-do" list. Does it ever stop? Do you say yes to things without really figuring out the impact they will have on your time? Not saying no, answering emails while your autoreply is on- all of this suggests that your boundaries are malleable, and colleagues (even unconsciously) will take advantage of this.

The empathetic sensitive striver is another type that may have trouble drawing a line in the sand. Research actually claims that this describes 15-20% of the population, due to a genetically coded finely-attuned nervous system. Who knows if that really is the case, but what is sure is that many of us will recognize the description in ourselves. While empathy is hugely important in building authentic relationships (and where would the world of education be without it), it can cause overthinking. How will this person react when we change that process? Maybe I should just check-in to see if they are OK? Perhaps I should rework that part of it so they get on board with it? That comment my colleague made about my work in the meeting- what did they mean by it? On and on it goes until there is nothing left in the tank. With friends and family waiting for you at home on the other side of this, how can there be anything much left to give? Time to stop.

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Downtime is not wasted time

If you recognize some of the above, it is hard to feel anything but guilty or ill-at-ease when taking time off. But that's it. Time off is not an indulgence. Do we coo at motorists filling their cars at the gas station, saying "oooooh look at you treating yourself!". If you do, then you've got us worried.

Downtime is an investment. Carving out space for yourself means you can be better at giving to others in work and at home. You have heard it before, and you'll hear it again now- you cannot pour from an empty cup. Running on fumes means nobody is happy, and reframing time to yourself as an investment in the things you care about, might help the sensitive strivers and insecure overachievers. Giving to yourself is also giving to others - it is not an either/or situation.

Give yourself permission, fully.

Switch off your phone

If you grew up in the pre-TikTok era, how did you ever survive? What on earth did we do with our time? If your fingerprint ID no longer works because you wore your finger smooth with constant scrolling, just take a second to think. 61% of people surveyed felt worse after checking their phone updates. The screen light keeps your brain active, and the dopamine hits from clicking the updates and liking the cat videos just never ends.

Disconnecting is hard, but your mobile device is the thing that largely tethers you to work and responsibility. If your work cannot manage without you, then that is a problem for them to solve. If you are self-employed, then that is an issue for you to solve. It cannot be the case that we are unable to extricate ourselves from something that is meant to support, but not consume our existence. Another line to draw.

Be firm in the autoreply. None of this "I will only occasionally have access to emails". You earned this time. If that seems extreme, try setting contingency plans with your colleagues before leaving: if X happens, speak to Y. You cannot be the single point of failure in any process. Be more gentle with responses if that helps to "train" your colleagues as you set boundaries. "Thanks for your email. I am currently spending time with my children on annual leave and will reply as soon as I return".

Delete the email app from your phone, bring physical books with you so you don't read on your phone or iPad, leave the phone at home or in the car when going for walks, get an old-fashioned alarm clock and switch the phone off in the morning and evening. Make the "airplane mode" and "do not disturb" your best new friends.

Switching off your device is the single most important way to create distance from your work. In that distance, you might start to find the space you really need. We wrote about some great morning and evening routines to reduce stress in this earlier article and, truth be told, holidays are actually a great time to create new healthier routines.

Switch it off and charge your own battery.

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Reflect

Distance creates space, and space creates opportunity. What are you afraid of? So many of us suffer from the scarcity mindset, as the newspapers chatter about global job losses and you feel the weight of responsibility to keep going. So many of us feel trapped by this, and trapped you most certainly are not. Think back to other points in your life when this felt the same. How did that turn out?

Changing thinking patterns ain't easy. Research suggests that hardwiring a new way of thinking can take at least 66 days as the neurocircuitry reforms around new patterns. Moving from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset is not going to happen on your 2-week trip to Mallorca, but the seeds can be sown there. Journalling, reading, meditating, affirmations' does this sound too woo woo? These things work. And that is often the barrier to change. Change happens from space to step back, but for those of us who are overworked and in a cycle of stress and scarcity, making changes when we finally get some beach time can feel like the last thing we want to do. We collapse into a heap, sleep for a while, go swimming, have a little scroll on Instagram and check out the local sights and then we are back in the grind. Refreshed? Time off is the best shot you have to sow the seeds of lasting change.

Beach reads

In the coming weeks, we're not going to be posting lots of articles about work. If we did, that would be pretty hypocritical after all of this, and believe when we say- this article is speaking to us as much as it speaks to you. We are all in this together. 2020 was mind-melting, and 2021 hasn't turned down the heat, so we all need to look after each other.

We’ll be sharing some great beach reads on personal growth and other topics, that might just be the spark for change. We'll be covering lighter topics on The NEO Academy Podcast so that you don't get pulled back into the fray. We are right here with you, so reach out and let us know if there’s something else you believe we should cover.

You've got this. You can absolutely make a change and leave a cycle that does not serve you. If you survived 2020, you're made of strong stuff, and we invite you to take the time to start believing that.

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