Unplugging – How four professors successfully disconnect from work

A couple of months ago, FAUW hosted a panel on how faculty members can “unplug” when away from work. With reading week upon us, we thought we’d share some of the insights from that event.

These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas dreamed up by productivity bloggers or people who don’t sleep. These are real methods for protecting your time practiced by professors at UWaterloo who are approximately as busy as you are.

Meet the panelists

  • Jen Boger is an assistant professor in Systems Design Engineering. Jen is the Schlegel Chair in Technology for Independent Living at the Research Institute for Aging and director of the Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living (ITWIL) Lab.
  • Brian Doucet is an associate professor in the School of Planning and holds a Canada Research Chair in Urban Change and Social Inclusion.  
  • Pat Lam is an associate professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Pat is the director of the software engineering program and a FAUW board member.
  • Narveen Jandu, moderator for the event, is an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems and a FAUW board member.

On email boundaries

  1. Decide when and how quickly you’ll respond to email. Set clear boundaries and expectations with students. Brian tells students that he will only respond to emails on Monday to Friday between 8:30 and 4:30. If you know students aren’t expecting an immediate response to their midnight email, you might feel less obligated to send one. Bonus points for encouraging your TAs to set their own boundaries.
  2. Tell people well in advance how available (or not) you will be during vacation. This helps colleagues and students get their questions in before you leave or plan to deal with things when you get back, and can significantly reduce the number of emails waiting for you when you get back. Jen gives a few select people (e.g. her grad students) her cell phone number in case of an emergency (such as the lab being on fire). They’ve rarely called. Brian didn’t check email for four months during a parental leave, and the world didn’t end!
  3. Set an auto-reply when you’re especially busy. Jen does this with grant deadlines, letting people know that she’ll respond after the deadline.
  4. Limit your notifications and access to email. Pat doesn’t have work email on his phone. Other panelists said they do, but turn off all work-related notifications or limit them to a VIP list. While you’re at it, turn off email notifications on your computer, too. Or, better yet…
  5. Only check email a few times a day, closing it completely in between so it doesn’t distract you during other work. Brian finds that answering emails in batches, especially ones related a specific assignment, can really reduce your time spent on email.
  6. Use the “send later” function to maintain the expectations you’ve set out, even if you’re processing email late at night or on weekends.
  7. Keep a notepad and pen next to your bed for late-night ideas, not your phone, to avoid the temptation to check email (or social media) once you’ve got your phone out.

On protecting your time

  1. Encourage your grad students to take time off when you do! Show them that it’s important to work hard and to step away from work and do other things. (This has the added effect of reducing how much you have to catch up on when you get back.)
  2. Don’t do everything people ask you to do. You might even question whether certain tasks need to be done at all—you might save a lot of other people’s time, too. For help with this…
  3. Bring in reinforcements. An event attendee shared that they have a “No” Committee of people who run things by each other before committing to new initiatives, benefiting from both more time to fully consider the opportunity costs and the perspective of people further removed from the obligation you might be feeling.
  4. Experiment to find what works for you. Pat pointed out that it’s not inherently bad to check email at night, but it’s bad if you don’t want to do it and still do.
  5. Recognize that you are in charge of (much of) your time. Focus on your own agency and have confidence in your ability to carve out time away from work and email.

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