I’ve never been good at work-life balance. In fact, with my remote lifestyle they often bled into each other, with me taking breaks mid-day to explore a new city, and staying up overnight to work with a client on a different timezone.
It was already difficult enough to protect my personal time back when I was working remotely for various clients. I was always online. But now, thanks to COVID-19, now everyone else is online all the time too!
If you’re newly remote due to global circumstances and finding it hard to disconnect, or a veteran remote worker who found all their clients suddenly online 24/7 as well, your screen time is probably at an all time high. And it’s hard to know when to unplug to avoid burnout, or in the face of that frantic overwhelming sound of non-stop notifications.
If any of these scenarios ring true for you, keep reading to find out how you can protect your time and set boundaries online to improve productivity and prevent screens from taking over your life.
How to protect your time when everyone is online 24/7
1) Batch your meetings
Virtual meetings take less of an investment than physical meetings, but can sometimes be more tiring if you’re trying to read non-existent non-verbal cues. You need to be extra alert not just about what you’re hearing, but also what you’re saying and how you say it to avoid misinterpretation.
If you’re in a role that requires collaboration, sometimes emails won’t cut it (I know – I’m sorry). You may have to hop on calls with clients, subcontractors, partners, or new leads – and batching your meetings can help.
Instead of feeling like you’re always waiting for the next meeting, get everything scheduled for the mornings so once you’re done you can go into deep work. You can batch your various tasks to avoid context switching, and come away with a more productive schedule every day.
Batching is a smart project management technique to handle multi-faceted roles where you need to oversee employees, email management, meetings, and SME work.
How to do it
You can batch your meetings by setting aside one day a week, or a particular block of hours each day, for all of your client meetings. Then, reserve your non-meeting time for flow work, to avoid being halfway through a job then realizing you need to break off for a meeting.
If you use a meeting scheduling tool, you can set availability hours within that tool to prevent people from booking meetings outside of your allotted hours.
2) Make your meetings more efficient
To improve productivity and protect your time online during meetings, you should also plan to send out a meeting agenda prior to the meeting to ensure everyone knows what will (and won’t) be discussed on the call.
Similarly, you could implement time boundaries by setting strict meeting times to prevent meetings from running longer than necessary. Where possible, minimize the likelihood of unnecessary meetings by asking clients to revert to email on topics or queries that do not necessarily need to be a full 30-minute meeting.
How to do it
Limit your meetings to 15 minutes by default, with a 30 minute maximum. If someone wants to meet for longer than that, they will need to make a case for it, or be forced to prepare and do some preliminary communication via email (where it is recorded and can be reviewed prior to the meeting).
3) Make use of out of office auto-replies
Your out of office auto-responder isn’t just for 2-week vacations. You may observe a holiday that not all of your clients do (for example, in different countries or religions). You may have gotten clients used to weekend responses, when you’d really like to start taking weekends off. You may even dedicate one weekday to focused work, and need to inform clients and team members that “Wednesdays are quiet days.”
Although it can be difficult to stop working and responding during weekends and evenings, you still need to switch off every now and then. It’s good for productivity and helps you get work done efficiently.
How to do it
Set up your auto replies to go live whenever you have trouble switching off. For different people, depending on how their teams and clients have come to expect their availability, it can mean anything from evening auto-responders (that turn on after 7 p.m. every day) or the one-off holidays.
In your auto responders, highlight common questions and where they can find their own answers – such as a support center link to open a new ticket. You should also be sure to highlight your hours and when you’ll be back, to set expectations and get everyone used to your working schedule.
That leads us to our next point…
4) Publicize your online hours
Be transparent about your online hours to make sure other people know when you are and aren’t online. This can also help with keeping yourself accountable with the boundaries you set.
Not everyone thrives in the standard 9-5. You may have childcare commitments, or do you best work in the middle of the night. You may have different timezones to coordinate, or clients who work in odd hours.
Especially if your hours different from the norm, it’s important to manage expectations for when you’re available online to protect your productivity and avoid angry emails from someone who feels ignored.
How to do it
If you actively use Slack to communicate with clients, subcontractors, or partners, you can update your Slack status to reflect your workload and let people know your working hours.
If you have a website, you can also state your working hours on your contact or services pages. Some contractors have “office hours” where they open their schedules up to clients or leads who want to chat.
Add your working hours into your email footer, and into your auto-responders to remind everyone when you’re available.
By being transparent about your online hours, you can better manage people’s expectations about when you are and are not available for work.
5) Find your flow
Above, I recommended blocking off certain days or hours for your “offline time.” For some people, this just doesn’t work. Maybe you’re managing a fast paced team or product, that needs you available at a moments notice in case there’s a fire. Maybe blocking off chunks of your day, or full days, makes you even more anxious and it’s actually terrible for your productivity!
If that doesn’t work, you can try different time organization tactics, such as the Pomodoro technique. I’ll go a little further into how to handle these different tactics.
How to do it: Timeboxing and time tracking
When working online, it’s likely you’ll have lots of different tasks for different clients on your daily to-do list.
Timeboxing, similar to batching, works by blocking off certain hours of the day for specific tasks. It’s a great technique for understanding how long specific tasks take so that you are able to more effectively manage your time online going forward. You can also use a time-tracking app to monitor how long specific tasks take to complete.
Tip: Tracking time can ensure your rates are up-to-date and reflect the time you put into your work. You can then analyze the time taken on specific tasks to streamline your business and implement lean processes that protect your time.
How to do it: Pomodoro technique
Alternatively, if timeboxing doesn’t sound like it would work for you, you could try the Pomodoro technique, which is designed to help you overcome procrastination and improve your focus in short 25-minute sprints.
The Pomodoro method of time management calls for alternating 25-minute focused work sessions, with frequent short breaks to promote sustained concentration and minimize the risk of mental fatigue. If you are someone who finds small distractions can derail your entire working day, or you often work past the point of optimal productivity, the Pomodoro method may be beneficial for you.
When using the Pomodoro technique, you will work on a task for 25 minutes. Once those 25 minutes are complete, take a 5 minute break before starting the next 25 minute “Pomodoro.” After 4 Pomodoros, take a longer 15 – 30 minute break to ensure you have a chance to mentally reset so you can come back to your task feeling more productive.
6) Manage your work and personal life boundaries
Finally, when you work online, the lines between work-life and personal-life can often become blurred. It is important that you consciously manage the boundaries between your work- and personal-life to ensure you have a healthy work-life balance.
How to do it
In addition to following the tips above, you can turn on Do Not Disturb mode on your phone in the evenings, having a strict “no work emails on your personal phone” rule, and turning off social media notifications so you don’t get distracted during the day.
The point is you need to make a conscious effort to not let time get away from you.
By implementing healthy working habits you can protect your time management when you’re always online. The constant barrage of different online distractions can be a common productivity risk for remote workers.
By putting these rules in place you can make sure your work has your undivided attention during your working hours to improve task productivity.
Similarly, setting these boundaries will also make sure your personal life is free from work-related distractions so that you have time to relax and recover before your next working day begins.
Freelance and remote work can be extremely rewarding as you have the opportunity to be in control of your own work. Learning to protect your time online will transform your productivity, time-management and wellbeing as a remote worker.