Why you should totally unplug from your phone this weekend — and 3 key moves to help you do it

Why you should totally unplug from your phone this weekend — and 3 key moves to help you do it
Better work-life balance starts with focusing on your IRL life when you can — and shutting down your distracting devices.
Source: Kitja Kitja/Shutterstock
Better work-life balance starts with focusing on your IRL life when you can — and shutting down your distracting devices.
Source: Kitja Kitja/Shutterstock

Labor Day isn’t just another day off to enjoy fun three-day weekend activities. It’s a holiday that began in the 1800s to try to boost union organizing — and to fight the problem of long work hours.

That might be painfully ironic to learn if you are consigned to working this weekend. But even if you’re lucky enough to have the time off, it’s likely you’ll still find yourself mindlessly checking emails, reading industry news or otherwise tapping away on your smartphone. And even just a quick peek at Facebook, Instagram or Twitter can turn into a slippery slope and wasted hours better spent in the sunshine with the people you love IRL.

Stop. For you, it may be time to revisit the core purpose of Labor Day: stepping away from work for a while — which today means stepping away from addictive digital devices. Research suggests we are all getting burned out because we never unplug:

“The act of monitoring and worrying about emails... prevents employees from disconnecting from work and being entirely present in their non-work life activities,” William Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and a co-author of 2016 study “Exhausted but unable to disconnect,” told Mic in email interview.

The truth is that totally unplugging can be valuable in more ways than one: Workers who go on vacation tend to get more raises, while those who are constantly connected tend to have higher stress levels. And even when we’re not answering an email from our boss, the time spent scrolling through social media can have negative mental health consequences, too.

“One of the issues with smartphones is that they are ever present, easily accessible and tend to spontaneously trigger emotional responses of a wide gamut,” Alejandro Lleras, a University of Illinois professor of psychology, said to Mic in an email interview. “You can read the NYT and feel awful about victims of the Hurricane, turn to FB and feel jealous of your ex[’s] happy photos and then feel inadequate at the lack of responses to a funny post you composed earlier, all in less than 30 seconds!”

Now, of course, unplugging is much easier said than done. If you are ready to step away from your devices but need a little help, read on. These three simple moves can help you — this Labor Day weekend and beyond.

1. Set up an out-of-office message and go into airplane mode

You’re walking around a farmers market picking out goodies for your Labor Day BBQ and your phone dings: You’ve got mail. You dig out your phone, feeling that tinge of worry about whether the message carries news of a work-related problem — and discover the email is just an ad for a Labor Day sale.

Still, now you’ve lost your flow and feel a little worse than you did before. “The expectation to monitor — which may be formal or informal norms set by managers, coworkers, or clients — really drives this,” Becker told Mic. “When expectations are high, employees are more likely to be in a constant state of anxiety and might even ruminate about it in their sleep.”

While countries like France give workers the right to unplug from email, there are not similar protections in the United States which means it’s up to you to protect yourself. If your job is demanding, you can at least dial back a little, by setting specific times you will check email (like, once at 9 a.m., then noon, then at 3 p.m., and so on) and otherwise keeping your phone in airplane mode.

If you want to really draw a line, set up an out-of-office message to indicate you won’t be checking emails until Monday morning. Then, change your work password on your work computer not your phone. That will make it harder to cheat and check in.

But if you’re not ready to go that far, you might at least turn off notifications on your phone: You can still allow important calls through. And it’s a good idea to avoid replying to nonemergency emails in your off-time — even if you read them — or you will make people think they can expect a response from you right away. Even if you want to type a reply, it’s better to save it in drafts to send on Monday, which will also let you give it a last glance with fresh eyes.

Scared of how your manager will react? When you get back to the office, consider talking to your boss about his or her expectations: “Is it okay if I wait until Monday to reply to work emails?” or “I hope to avoid checking my email often on the weekends, but could you call my cellphone in an emergency?” are two simple questions that can help you start to set boundaries. In other words, you want to create “create inviolate time with family and friends where you focus only on them and enjoying your personal life,” Becker said.

2. Rely on an app — and friends for solidarity

Staring at your computer or phone all day, whether for work or to check out friends’ photos, is correlated with mental health problems.

“I don’t believe there is (yet) a strong consensus as to whether people are addicted to internet and/or cell phones,” Lleras, who has conducted a study on mobile device addiction, explained to Mic. “Our study and many others tend to show a correlation, such that the more you tend to engage with internet and smartphones in this addictive (maladaptive) patterns, the poorer your mental health is.”

Indeed, other research suggests internet addiction is linked to gray matter abnormalities, decreased functional brain connectivity in adolescent brains, impaired inhibitory control and a host of other undesirable consequences. And, even if you’re not addicted, glancing at your phone and computer too often can affect your sleep cycles and the health of your eyes, back and neck.

The good news is that there are several apps that can physically block you from either connecting to the internet or signing on to certain websites. And if that seems silly to you, a more traditional fix — help from a friend or friends — might be the ticket: To make sure you stay present with your loved ones, have everyone put their phones in the center of the table and set a rule that the first person who touches his or her phone has to buy a round of drinks, or has dishwasher duty for a week.

In general, if your phone is harder to access (across the room or locked up inside a separate section of your bag) all of these better habits could start to come more naturally. You might consider using a watch to check the time and an old-fashioned alarm clock — so you’re not tempted to scroll through your emails first thing when you wake up or every time you check the time. And if you really, really want to peek at your phone? Set a timer so you have a stopping point — and won’t spend all day following one link to the next.

3. Set a schedule of IRL activities

The best cure for an addiction to the digital world just might be more stuff to focus on in the real one. If you’re out living your life perhaps in a place where you don’t get great phone reception avoiding your devices could feel easier than you expect.

Take part in something like the #100HoursUnplugged Challenge by planning camping trips, kayaking excursions, bike riding expeditions or other outdoor activities for 100 hours. While this organized challenge was for the summer months, there’s no reason you can’t set a similar goal during fall and winter.

Cultivate activities you wish you did more often. Tempted to open Twitter? Pick up a book instead. Tempted to check your phone first thing in the morning? Stop, and instead make a list of what you want to accomplish that day.

Finally, allow yourself time every day for your mind to wander on its own: “Brain systems activated during rest are also important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing, for example, when recalling personal memories, imagining the future and feeling social emotions with moral connotations,” as one 2012 study, “Rest is not Idleness,” found.

There’s a good case to make here not just for you but for your boss, too: If you can take a break from both work and technology for a while, even by doing something as simple as taking a walk, you could make yourself happier, healthier and even better at work. As Harvard Business Review has reported, regular breaks enhance overall productivity.

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