If your mind just filled in the ellipsis (the “…”) in the title of this article with “you”, then you may have been listening to the Bombay Bicycle Club, a British band. I’ve recently seen them live, and then were good – what’s more, it’s a great (and very catch) song. “You” is probably healthy. If, on the other hand, your mind filled in the ellipsis with “work”, then, well we – or rather, you – have a problem.
When I wake up in the morning, one of the first things I do – like many of you, my dear readers, I suspect – is reach for my mobile phone. One of the first things I do on unlocking it is check my email. Specifically, my work email. Like many of us, I find it convenient to keep my work email account on my personal phone. I enjoy the flexibility of not being tied to my desk throughout the working day, and fancy myself important enough that I feel that people may want to contact me during the day and expect a fairly quick reply. Equally, I live in the UK and work with people across CET (an hour earlier than me) to Eastern US time (5 hours after me), often correspond with people on Pacific US time (8 hours after me), and sometimes in other timezones, too. In order to be able to keep up with them, and not spend 12 hours or so at my desk, I choose to be able to check for incoming emails wherever I am – which is wherever my phone is. So I check email through the day – and to almost last thing at night.
This is not healthy. I know this – as do my family. It is also not required. I know this – as do my colleagues. In fact, my colleagues and my family all know that it’s neither healthy nor required. I also know that I have a mildly addictive personality, and that, if I allowed myself to do so, I would drown in my work, always checking email, always writing new documents, always reviewing other people’s work, always, always, always on my phone: eat, sleep, wake…
In order to stop myself doing this, I make myself do other things. These aren’t things I don’t want to do – it’s just that I would find excuses not to do them if I could. I run (slowly and badly, up to 5 kilometres) 2-3 times a week. I read (mainly, but not exclusively, science fiction). I game (Elite Dangerous, TitanFall 2 (when it’s not being DDoSed), Overwatch, Civilization (mainly V, Call to Power), and various games on my phone), I listen to, and occasionally watch, cricket. And recently, I’ve restarted a hobby from my early teenage years: I’m assembling a model airplane (badly, though not as badly as I did when I was younger). I force myself to take time to do these things. I’m careful to ensure that they don’t interfere with work calls, and that I have time to get “actual” work done. I keep block of time where I can concentrate on longer tasks, requiring bouts of concentration. But I know that my other work actually benefits when I force myself to take time out, because a few minutes away from the screen, at judicious points, allows me to step back and recharge a bit.
I know that I’m a little odd in having lots of activities – hobbies, I guess – that I enjoy (I’ve only listed a few above). Other people concentrate on one, and rather than interspersing blocks of non-work time into their day, have these blocks of time scheduled outside their core working hours. One friend I know cycles for hours at a time (his last Strava entry was a little over 100km (60 miles) and a little under 3 and a half hours) – an activity which would be difficult to fit in between meetings for most working routines. Others make the most of their commute (yes, some people do commute still) to listen to podcasts, for instance. What’s in common here is a commitment to the practice of not working.
I realise that being able to do this is a luxury not shared by all. I likewise realise that I work in an industry (IT) where there is an expectation that senior people will be available at short notice for many hours of the day – something we should resist. But finding ways of not working through the day is, for me, a really important part of my working – it makes me a more attentive, better worker. I hesitate to call this “work-life balance”, because, honestly, I’m not sure that it is a balance, and I need to keep tweaking it. But at least I’m not checking my email every minute of every hour of every day.