Managing a business can be stressful. One of the things that makes it more stressful is the assumption that you need to be constantly connected. A client might need something. An employee might need something. When you're the boss, it all comes down to you.
But is this assumption true? From studying how people spend their time, I've learned that one of the best ways to feel more relaxed is to become less beholden to one's phone. Fortunately, there are very practical steps managers and business owners can take to turn their phones into tools, rather than tyrants.
If you feel like your phone is a constant source of stress, you're not alone. I recently asked 900 people with very busy lives to track their time for a day as part of my research for my forthcoming book, Off the Clock. I looked at the differences between people who said they felt like they had plenty of time, and those who felt rushed and harried. One striking finding: The most relaxed reported checking their phones about half as frequently as the most stressed.
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Of course, this could be a correlation issue. People with more stressful jobs (or family situations) might need to check their e-mail and texts more frequently. But other research has found causation between stress and phone use. For a study published in Computers in Human Behavior a few years ago, researchers had two groups of office workers try different conditions. During one week, one group could check e-mail three times per day; the other group could check whenever they wished. During a different week, the two groups switched instructions. The finding was that the same person, checking e-mail three times per day, feels more relaxed than when he checks it more often.
Even if you're running a business, there are practical ways to cut your volume of phone checks down.
First, get help. A trusted assistant who can answer calls and monitor your inbox for anything urgent can empower you to ditch the phone for a few hours. That in turn makes it possible to focus fully on a client, or on solving important business issues, without distractions. Delegating is tough, but it's impossible to expand a business without doing so. You are only one person. You have only 24 hours per day.
Second, get a real alarm clock. If you use your smartphone to wake up in the morning, you'll check your e-mail and texts first thing. This means you're starting the day in responsive mode, rather than focusing your energy on whatever you've decided is most important. (Smartphones also make it too easy to hit snooze, but that's a different problem).
Third, embrace airplane mode. Many people don't wear watches these days. If you monitor your phone usage, you'll likely see that you often glance at it to check the time. But that just makes it easy to glance at everything else. Using airplane mode (or a do-not-disturb function) means you can still see the time, but nothing else disturbs your concentration. And, if we're being honest, most of the things that disturb our concentration aren't that important. I inadvertently enabled notifications from a sports app not long ago. I was out enjoying a lovely walk, trying to sort through some problems, when my phone began beeping with great urgency. The culprit: scores from a game between two teams I didn't care about anyway. Better to pretend to be unreachable.
Next, set times to deal with e-mail. From studying people's time logs, I have found a fundamental truth about e-mail: It will expand to fill all available space. You can try to get yourself down to Inbox Zero, but the responses sent there will trigger their own responses, often leaving you exactly where you were before. That means that the only way to spend less time on e-mail is to choose to spend less time on e-mail. Even if you need to check frequently, try being on for 15 minutes, then off for 45 minutes. You're responding to anything urgent within an hour, but you still have reasonable chunks of time to concentrate on other things.
Finally, try taking yourself less seriously. Earth will keep spinning regardless of what any of us do. If there is an emergency, and you are unreachable, the smart people you hired will deal with it. You can relax and have coffee with a new hire without looking at your phone 15 times. And in these off-the-clock moments when you're really engaged with each other, your new hire will say something that will trigger a great new idea. When you look at your inbox later, you'll see it was nothing but newsletters and ads. Better to be the boss of your phone, rather than the other way around.
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Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including the forthcoming Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (Portfolio, May 29, 2018). She is speaking at The 2018 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit, where Canada's top entrepreneurs share their strategies for success. Full lineup and early bird tickets available at tgam.ca/SBS18.