Who else is tired of being “on”? For some reason, no one wants to publicly talk about it. We each wear so many different hats: employee, employer, sibling, child, parent, partner, friend, neighbor, family member, etc. And each hat requires a different level of “on”—this doesn’t mean you aren’t being authentic to yourself, but adapting to the social scenarios for that character you play in your life.
If you say, “I’m so tired,” or “I need a break,” or “I want to feel normal” … suddenly you’re negative, a downer, not really a team player. But we all feel these things as working adults at least once a week, if not once a day. I wrote a piece about surface acting and how our culture of toxic positivity affects our frontline workers; they truly never get a break. But I also want to take a moment and give back to the people like me, who aren’t physically in-person to work, but who are always on. Let’s take things offline.
As I write this, my phone is in airplane mode for the first time since … I was on an airplane last year. My iMessage is fully removed from my laptop’s dock. And for once I don’t have a silly podcast blaring at me on Spotify. I hear the exhaust pipes of traffic on Lake Shore Drive and the quiet whoosh of my fan on this unseasonably warm spring day with the windows open. The sunlight is that true middle-of-the-day bright, almost as if it was July, and my tabby cat has just sighed contentedly as she curls into a new position for nap time. I am truly present. You know what that took? Hearing permission from our CEO at Anthill. “It’s okay if you want to work outside or go offline for a few hours.”
Our culture of being persistently “on” is the reason we all feel so burnt out. “Burning out” has been a buzzword this last year during the pandemic, but it’s been omnipresent ever since smartphones, WiFi and social media became everything to us. I knew I had to write today, and with everything happening in all directions (even at home), I had no idea where to start until I shut it all out. Until I ignored the group texts, told my mother I couldn’t chat right now, and physically shut myself “off” from others.
We’re so worried about missing breaking news, not responding right away to a client request, or hurting a friend’s feelings by not replying in a lightning-fast manner that we’re missing everything in front of us and within us. We already have our best ideas and solutions—sometimes it really is best for us to work them out on our own, in silence.
The thing is, most requests, scenarios and conversations rarely involve an emergency. When we sit here behind our screens moving our organizations forward, it really isn’t the same as fighting a fire or resuscitating someone’s life—we just act like it is. I’m not saying to purposely ignore others. But I am saying it’s time we all set some boundaries and not be scared to shout them from the rooftops.
People will react to the boundaries we present them. If you don’t put any up clearly, they will think you will always respond immediately and have time for only their requests—after all, that’s what you’ve shown them. You can train others though by kindly requesting for communication in a certain format or by responding only during certain hours. For example, maybe you use one of Slack’s fun emoji statuses to show you’re heads down and unable to tal. Or you thank your client for their patience to answer their questions as you tend to check your email only during certain times of the day.
Our biggest fears of not setting clear boundaries are that we’ll get in trouble with others. I think we’ve all had a boss or two that hounded us as we tried to crank out a project as quickly as possible, or even friends that text us after our bedtimes. We’re worried others won’t be pleased with us if we don’t take care of their needs right away, so much so that we throw our own needs completely to the wayside. What is that saying again, about putting on our own oxygen masks first?
Going offline needs to be an ongoing practice for us all—not just when someone gives you permission. We first need to give that permission to ourselves. All it takes is a little perspective, planning and patience. Figure out your best moments to go offline (they do exist), allow yourself the same grace you’d show others, and practice a little patience as you learn to detach from the world—it’s not easy, but nothing worth it ever is.