If you’re a freelancer or remote worker, you are, in many ways, your own boss. But you’re also your own employee. To get the most out of yourself requires a compassionate but strict understanding of what it takes to improve your productivity and wellbeing. One of the most important factors in that equation might be knowing when to disconnect from work: even the architects of this wonderful always-on digital world are now going to great lengths to escape it.
Being “always-on” isn’t healthy. Working more than 40 hours a week makes you twice as likely to have a depressive episode. And it’s not productive, either. A study on construction workers, for example, found that working 60-hour weeks for two months straight lead to such a significant drop in productivity that working 40-hour weeks during the same timeframe would have produced the same or better results. We’re stressing ourselves out—and we’re not even getting a good deal back on the investment.
We can trick ourselves into thinking that the mind at rest is an unproductive mind, when the opposite is true. Periods of downtime are critical for the brain’s subconscious processes, which boost memory and problem-solving skills. This is about working smarter, not harder, and disconnecting from our devices and our work plays an important role.
A 2019 study in the Netherlands found that those who are able to disconnect after work—disconnect physically, emotionally, and cognitively—had improved energy levels, better sleep cycles, increased concentration, and more positive moods. Notably, these benefits did not occur when one disconnected during a work break, meaning that true disconnection must come in longer blocks of time.
The three types of healthy separation from work (physical, emotional, and cognitive) become more difficult when you’re a location independent freelancer. It’s hard to leave the office when the office is nothing more than your laptop and your phone. How do you disconnect cognitively when you’re working on deadlines rather than a concrete set of working hours? How do you disengage emotionally when work is less structured—and less secure—than a typical office job?
Simply put, it’s about setting boundaries and forming healthy routines. For some, that might mean diving in head first. For others, it may be more about wading in slowly. Only your boss knows best. No matter which approach you’re drawn to, we’ve collected some proven ways of disconnecting from work and restoring a healthy work-life balance. Check it out, then close your laptop lid, power down your phone, just for a little. You owe it to yourself.
Americans spend an average of nearly four hours a day on their phones. Chipping into that time and making room for disconnection requires a concerted effort. If you’re a freelancer, you should already have a schedule laid out for work, but a schedule for your personal time can be beneficial as well. While it doesn’t need to be obsessive down to the minute, such a schedule should include dedicated time for disconnection (whether that’s an hour or a full day of disconnection).
Note how you feel before, during, and after that time away from the screen. Little by little, you’ll teach your brain to work on its own again, and you’ll take charge of time that was yours to begin with. According to experts at the American Psychological Association, you’ll also sleep better, feel less anxious, and form more meaningful connections with other people.
Even if you’re a freelancer working from cafes across the globe, you should set distinctions between what is and what isn’t an office. Find areas and activities that are conducive to disconnection and reinforce them. It’s easy to check your email on the treadmill, but it’s also just as easy to go on airplane mode and the benefits of the latter are demonstratively greater.
Everyone knows exercise is healthy. And, according to a 2018 study in Stress & Health, exercise on the weekend makes workers feel better on Monday morning. But there’s a catch. In the study, only those who both exercised and disconnected from work meaningfully over the weekend reaped the positive benefits come Monday morning. The study’s findings suggest that boundaries are important conditions for disconnection: a solid sleep cycle and a psychological detachment from the demands of the work week are critical for mental and physical rejuvenation. You can work or you can work out, but it’s demonstrably better to keep the two things separate.
If disconnecting was as easy as deciding to do it, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. But telling ourselves we should use airplane mode more isn’t enough. You’re currently connected to the internet reading an article about how to disconnect, and the author has clearly fallen victim to the same paradox whilst writing said article. Are we all just completely wasting our time here, or can technology help us fight our addiction to technology?
The research isn’t in. But you can give it a try. Hack your own addiction and reinforce boundaries by burying time-consuming apps in dedicated subfolders of your phone, thereby increasing the amount of effort, and thought, put into accessing them. Add two-factor authentication to your work email; it’s not only a good safety precaution, but a positive mental health choice as well. The idea here is to reinforce connection as a conscious choice, rather than an impulsive and subconscious reaction.
Specific apps have sprouted up specifically to reinforce this idea. RescueTime tracks exactly how much time you spend on your phone, and for what. Offtime takes this a step further, allowing you to put your phone in a do-not-disturb mode that limits distractions while also being customizable enough to include a list of VIP contacts who will still be able to reach you. Apps like Freedom take an even harsher stance, allowing users to block all access to certain apps (or the entire internet) for a predetermined length of time.
If there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that the end goal is worth pursuing. Studies show that people who quit an app like Facebook for a month find themselves happier, more connected to their friends and family, and less politically polarized. Even if you don’t want to go cold turkey right away, a few tech-aided bouts of abstinence may have you considering it in the future.
If you’re a freelancer, you don’t necessarily have traditional weekends. When the work comes, the work comes, and when it’s due, it’s due. The only solution, as simple as it sounds, is to fearlessly declare certain days as weekends for yourself. They don’t have to be Saturday or Sunday. They don’t even have to be two days a week. But be a good boss to yourself and schedule time off. There’s science behind it. An Ernst & Young study 2006 found that every extra ten hours of vacation improved an employee’s year-end performance ratings by 8 percent.
A location-independent freelancer’s biggest weapon is their ability to create their own schedule. Even if they lack a traditional weekend, they’re usually more flexible to take mini-vacations than their office-bound counterparts are. That’s a good thing, given the benefits of a vacation also fade within two to four weeks. Taking several mini-vacations can therefore boost a freelancer’s productivity and aid in forming habits of disconnection. Furthermore, multicultural experiences and changes of scenery that come with such mini-vacations can improve creativity, according to a study by the US National Library of Medicine. So go ahead and book a couple days off the grid. Take some time in the middle of the week. Consider it a form of professional development.
Despite what a lot of techies seem to believe, faster isn’t always better. Doing digital tasks in an analog way can slow down the unquiet mind, reinforce boundaries, and reduce distractions. Reading books is well-established as a way to boost memory and increase empathy. But while an e-reader or a PDF leaves the temptation of distraction just a click away, paper books have a number of add-on benefits. People remember what they read in a paper book better than what they read on a screen. Further studies have shown that people comprehend the information more easily when reading off of paper as well. By performing a possibly digital task in an analog way, you’re training your brain to disconnect and focus.
Consider the act of journaling. As a freelancer, you probably already do something very similar when you schedule your work tasks or define your monthly and yearly goals. But by moving back to a more analog format and journaling with pen and paper, you can fulfill multiple objectives at once. The benefits are many. Writing down your goals by hand signals importance to your brain and the differentiation (of pen and paper compared to keyboard and screen) reinforces this further.
Journaling also increases mindfulness, which, in turn, increases happiness. Those who journal regularly have been shown to have lower stress, decreased anxiety, and better sleep. It’s some of the most old school tech available, but there’s a reason it’s still around: the pen is sometimes mightier than the keyboard.