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In a world of constant connectivity, how can we disconnect?

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Disconnection is vital, both for our families and for ourselves. But how do we do it?

Confession time: I’m struggling — and mostly failing — to find a balance between work and home. I feel late to the game on this one … most people face this struggle when they first get married and have kids, or get that big promotion. But after nearly 13 years of stay-at-home momming, I was unprepared for how hard it is to work full time and still be the mom my kids need.

Part of that struggle is learning how to use my time wisely. I’ve never been great at sticking to schedules, which was a minor nuisance when my life was more flexible but is a major problem now that my time is severely limited. However, it’s not the biggest problem — the biggest problem is that my job, like most jobs today, comes with the expectation of constant connectivity.

My phone, now equipped with several different types of messenger plus various emails and workspaces, dings at all hours. Red notification bubbles abound, each one demanding my attention any time I glance down. Even when I’m helping my kids with homework or eating dinner, it’s a real struggle not to let work distract me.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. Figuring out how to disconnect is an increasing concern in our modern work culture, one that is increasingly the subject of books, movies, and countless op-eds. Constant connectivity is just plain bad for us — and not just because it takes time from our families and stresses us out. As a recent article in the Washington Post noted, being “always on” might make it look like we’re super productive, but it actually takes a serious toll on our productivity.

“Always-on culture is weird. It’s not how humans thrive. It’s not how productive people break through to the next level,” said Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, which details his philosophy of confidently saying no to things that don’t benefit you — a “disciplined pursuit of doing less,” but doing it better. “Modern culture now acts upon us so constantly that we start reacting to it rather than acting for ourselves.”

Mr. McKeown argues that being selective about how we spend our time turns it into a valuable commodity to be traded, ultimately earning you respect and making you more productive when you’re “on.“ … “We have to dismantle always-on before it dismantles us,” Mr. McKeown warned. How to actually achieve that dismantling is complicated. Much like that electronic cummerbund that promises to zap your stomach into a six-pack but only burns you in the end — financially and in my case literally — there’s no quick fix.

The ethos of American work culture actually makes this even more difficult. Unlike the more laissez-faire work ethic of the French and Italians, Americans have always prized hard work. And now that hard work has gradually morphed into constant work — or at least constant responsiveness to our smartphones — this makes it harder than ever for us to even attempt to disconnect, much less embrace disconnection as a vital aspect of productivity.

But when you get right down do it, disconnection is a vital aspect of productivity. My inability to disconnect during family time has led to many misunderstandings and schedule snafus, leaving me rushing during a busy work day to take care of something for my kids that I could have done the evening before. When this happens, my work suffers — and so does my family. And because I feel guilty for having messed up, so do I.

I’ve been trying to correct this imbalance by silencing my phone, but it’s increasingly clear that that’s not enough. Even when my phone is silent, it buzzes, lights up, and those red bubbles still appear, clamoring for my attention. So today I’m trying a new tactic — enabling my iPhone’s “do not disturb” function, which will silence notifications and effectively block communication during the evening hours when my kids are home. It seems dramatic, and even a little pathetic — I basically have to put myself in iPhone time-out to focus my attention where it belongs.

But the truth is, this brave new frontier of constant connectivity is dramatic. It’s a new landscape, one that’s designed to override our self-control and pull us back to our devices again and again. In order to begin dismantling the unrealistic and unhealthy always-on work culture, we need to take advantage of the tools at our disposal — because those same tools that enable constant connectivity also hold the key to disabling it. Workspaces allow you to customize your “available” hours, notifications can be disabled entirely, and auto-reply functions on emails can give you the freedom to respond hours (or even days) later without fear of reprisal. And of course, there’s that most powerful tool of all — the power button.

If you’re really brave (or really desperate), you can pull the literal plug on connection and turn those devices off. If “do not disturb” fails me, this is my next step. And you never know — I might be surprised to find that the work that seems so urgent actually can wait until tomorrow, giving me time to focus on what can’t… the precious time I have with my family.

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