At a cafe table, at sunset, in Copenhagen, my partner and I shared the uncomfortable silence.
I had broken one of our cardinal rules for meals by looking at my phone — and worse, checking my email.
Though we both lead very busy and successful careers, the time we have to reconnect over food is reserved for us, and even if we only have twenty whole minutes to down something quick, we use the time to be device-free.
But, in the true essence of an entrepreneur, I felt the need to “check in” because, thanks to a time difference, the United States was in full working mode while Denmark was clocking out for the day.
It wouldn’t have been a big deal — and he likely wouldn’t have noticed — if I didn’t open my inbox to see a (rather rude) email from a client. It put me in a sour mood and supercharged my anxiety, leaving me unable to focus on anything else.
Ever-calm and patient — two qualities I don’t relate to — my partner reached for my hand.
He asked a question I’ll never forget:
“But what would change if you didn’t read that email until tomorrow morning?”
For a moment, my anger spiked: didn’t he get frustrated with work sometimes, too? Wasn’t I there for him when he was nervous?
But before I responded with something sassy, I took a sip of my aperol spritz and actually gave thought to his inquiry: if I didn’t see this email until the a.m. — was anything going to be different? Was I really going to rush home right this second to clear up a few questions on my (perfectly fine) article?
The answer was clear: I’m not a news writer, so why am I acting like one?
I was two years into being my own boss
That simple exchange had a lasting impact on how I balance work and life. More than that, it affected how I manage expectations of my clients and of myself, since an non-traditional job doesn’t always come with a rule book.
Though I did hustle hard to build a career that’s flexible and on my own terms, the same is true for much of the world, outside of the United States. Many companies encourage their employees to invest in their families and to truly sign-off when they’ve finished their meetings of the day.
In France, it’s illegal for bosses to expect you to answer email after work
In my partner’s home country of Denmark, it’s rare to be asked to work overtime. None of the friends we have visited there — from lawyers to bankers — harp on about their inboxes. They simply log out.
Though it isn’t always 100 percent achievable and the hours are never consistent, once I close my laptop for the day… I don’t look at email again. The change it’s made in my work ethic, my happiness, and my ability to focus has been tremendous.
Here, a few learnings I’ve developed since imposing this rule on my workflow:
I’m more productive
Sure, there are some days when I wake up and can’t imagine stringing sentences together, much less a full article — or three. I used to give myself an “out” by saying I could work as late as I needed to, since hey, I’m the captain of my own career.
Now, I have something to look forward to: being offline for a full evening. Knowing that I won’t need to check and respond to emails, or follow-up on stories after hours challenges me to be productive from the time I wake up until I tuck myself in.
I sleep better
Perhaps the biggest change of all is in my quality of rest. Before I decided checking my email wasn’t worth the anxiety it often caused, I would refresh my inbox consistently, even right before it was time to hit the hay. If there was a stressful email lurking, I would think about it, causing me to toss-and-turn and have trouble falling asleep.
Now, there may be a difficult situation to wake up to, but at the very least, I’m well-rested and prepared to tackle whatever might be waiting for me.
I’ve created boundaries and respect
Not everyone has the type of career that allows them to be fully offline every evening. But people often create stress for themselves in an effort to show off how eager, efficient, and available they are. Though this might send a message that you’re hardworking, it may not be the reputation you want to have for the duration of a contract, project, or job.
By logging off and not responding until the morning, I’m setting a precedent of what I’m willing to contribute, how important it is to have downtime and that when I’m online, I’m fully there and ready for work.
It was scary at first, sure, to not be “on” all hours of all days, but guess what? I’ve yet to lose a client — and I’ve even gained a few in the process.
I’m more satisfied with my work — and my life
When I used to meet friends for happy hour drinks, a workout class or dinner during the work week, I would check in on my email when I went to the bathroom. You know “just in case” something was urgent.
Now, when I feel that urge, I remember that unless I have a very demanding client or I expect a round of edits to come that need my urgent attention, it can wait until the morning.
This makes me a more active participant in conversations with my pals and my partner. In other words: I’m more present and thus, it makes me happier.