How to Take a Digital Break When Your Job is Online
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How to Take a Digital Break When Your Job is Online

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Illustration: Kezia Gabriella

I’ve been working from home as a freelance journalist for two years and I’m acutely aware of how my work hours have only increased in the past few months. My days have melted into nights and at one point I was waking up at 4 a.m. to answer emails because it was only afternoon somewhere else in the world. These days, when I’m not on my laptop working, I’m probably on my phone scrolling through the news or social media. But my need to be available leaves me drained and overwhelmed most of the time—there, I said it.

An analysis of user activity from business VPN service NordVPN Teams found that people in the US, the UK, France, Spain and Canada were working, on average, at least two extra hours a day since March 11, reported The Independent. This coincides with the approximate start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a survey of employees around the world, conducted by Glint, mentions of burnout had increased from 2.7% in March to 5.4% in April. This all comes in addition to older studies claiming that freelancers are at increased risk for burnout too.

“If you have a job that has on-call responsibilities, where you are expected to be reached all day and night, I would encourage you to take an inventory of how others in your industry have managed that same role,” said Aisha R. Shabazz, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. The information may provide insight into the industry’s expectation of maintaining the level of functioning; however, Shabazz added over email, “Be careful; just because it is expected of you, does not mean that it is ‘the right way’ to do things.”

Naturally, my search for answers led me to ask other remote working professionals—who spend a considerable part of their work hours online—how they take internet breaks on a day-to-day basis when their profession and leisure converge digitally.

1. Set boundaries and say no when needed

“I don’t keep regular hours as I work around my health and lifestyle, and highlight that email is preferred, which is replied to within 24 hours, and that phone calls must be pre-arranged or for emergencies only,” said Zoe Hughes, SEO Consultant at Zebra Business Solutions.

So, what does a boundary look like when you’re working remotely? It could mean setting stricter start and end work hours or monitoring your time on social media to ensure that you’re not overdoing either. A boundary can also mean creating your own workspace—not necessarily a home office—to hold yourself accountable to your own routine; or accepting that you cannot respond to every business email or call “right away.”

Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of global marketing and branding firm Mavens & Moguls, recommended learning to say no whenever needed. “Whether it means passing on joining another newsletter or e-group, sleeping in (no to an alarm clock), getting exercise, taking a walk, or just turning off my phone and computer (‘No, I will respond later on my own schedule’), simple acts of letting myself relax and be present in the moment are the best gifts I can give myself.”

2. Take frequent breaks throughout the day

“The clinical benefit of taking breaks is to recognize that the brain can only maintain a certain level of focus and productivity without a break,” Shabazz said.

This comes in particularly handy if you are looking at screens day in and day out. Talha Waseem works remotely from Lahore, Pakistan as a tech content editor for Malaysia-based company InvoZone. “I really have to pull myself hard out of this state where I have to constantly look at light-emitting screens.” He takes two to three breaks during his eight-hour job and spends that time relaxing or lying down.

Gayle Tan, who works as an independent consultant for tech start-ups and agencies, prioritizes movement throughout the day—whether that means taking a break to fetch water or stretching her legs. “I also have a midday session of Pilates before lunch. This is where my background as a Pilates instructor and lifestyle wellness coach comes in handy.”

So what if it’s one of those days when you are so caught up in work that you forget to take a break? Let’s be honest, it has happened to the best of us. Mental health professional and founder of Empower Our Crown Foundation Pilar Tucker recommended that you put it on your calendar.

“These wellness breaks must happen on a day-to-day basis in order to achieve a level of balance that helps individuals better tackle work challenges such as increased screen time,” she explained.

Jarry Lee, a digital marketing consultant and social media influencer, abides by this very rule. “I schedule breaks on my calendar and specifically set aside meal and snack times. I generally set aside one hour to cook a nice dinner three to four times during the work week.”

3. Take screenless breaks and participate in “offline” hobbies

When working for eight hours while sitting, it’s important to remain mindful that a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to cardiovascular diseases, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancers, poor posture and more. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

“To keep my clients engaged and thriving in their careers, I recommend (and practice myself) the 20-20-20 rule, as advised by the American Optometric Association, which means taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away. This works to prevent digital eye strain and protect their eyes,” Tucker said over email. She also recommends grounding techniques to her clients such as deep breathing and attuning to the five senses.

Akanksha Singh, an Indian freelance journalist, has made it a routine to avoid screens in the first half of her day. “I read, I write with a pen and paper, I listen to music, garden, cook—I basically avoid touching my laptop till noon.” This works out for her, she said, because she’s “bursting” with ideas when she finally sits down to write.

Food and travel blogger Bruna Venturinelli of I Heart Brazil also time blocks her agenda with working, eating and exercising. She puts her phone silent mode and away from sight when engaging in offline hobbies. “I religiously stop working at 5:30 p.m., have dinner, and go to the gym, read a book or knit another scarf.”

5. Mute, unsubscribe and declutter

Camille Brouard has been working remotely full-time during the coronavirus pandemic as a senior marketing executive at Myhrtoolkit. To monitor her screen time and lessen the risk of burnout, she said, “I try to ‘declutter’ as much as possible, closing tabs I don’t need and temporarily switching off notifications while I need an hour or so to really concentrate on a single task.”

Similarly, if you are following or subscribed to multiple social media accounts or information outlets, to the extent that they are hindering your productivity or affecting you negatively, it’s a good idea to cut back as much as possible.

“I cut back on newsletters, unfollowed or muted accounts, and just filtered out a lot of the noise,” said Sabina Ellahi, a PR professional. “I realized that I was seeing information repeatedly, so I spent some time clearing and unfollowing news outlets and digital platforms, and kept it strictly to outlets that I can trust without the ‘clickbait’ headlines.”

6. Turn off notifications and alerts—or better yet, delete social media apps

If your phone or laptop is always buzzing with notifications—work or otherwise—one of its consequences may be hypervigilance, Shabazz warned. “With hypervigilance, your brain is communicating that there is an urgent need to respond and alerting you to prepare for a dangerous circumstance, oftentimes incongruent with the situation you’re currently in,” she explained. “Once hypervigilance sets in, it is very difficult for the mind and body to unlearn this behavioral and physical response.” If an individual is experiencing hypervigilance within the context of work, Shabazz recommended seeking professional help.

That said, turning off notifications or removing certain apps is a good place to begin. “Keep your work devices in a separate room, so that you can compartmentalize your work within a physical space,” Shabazz added.

7. Monitor your screen time and internet usage

Ironically, thanks to a number of software and apps, it is easy to monitor your screen time and internet usage, and reallocate your time as necessary. It also allows you to assess how and where you’re spending excess time—is it purely work?—and eventually, reduce digital overuse.

During her career as a journalist, Lee had developed a habit of constantly refreshing Twitter for breaking news, she said, and had to force herself to take breaks from “doom-scrolling.” Now, she uses her iPhone’s time restrictions to limit the use of Twitter and Instagram. “As a social media influencer, I’m expected to be online 24/7, but that’s unhealthy and unsustainable,” she added.

Jemma Broadstock, a virtual assistant and VA coach, uses the RescueTime app to track her time online. “I realized I was spending two hours per day in my emails, which is crazy and I had no idea,” she said.At the end of the day, we should stop asking for permission to care for ourselves, said counselor and psychotherapist Saffya Fatima. “No one is going to notice if you leave your desk for five minutes to stretch your legs or do a five-minute mindfulness meditation, or if you take a short break—you don’t have to declare it.”

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