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The Power of “Predictable Time Off”

This post is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Do you check your phone and email compulsively? Do you work around the clock, just because you can always check your email? If so, you aren’t alone. These days we check constantly to abate our anxiety that we are missing something. Are we supposed to be responding to something urgent at work? What if someone called about something really important? Constant device checking looks a lot like an addiction (or obsessive-compulsive disorder). One study found that many people respond to “phantom phone vibrations”—they think they feel their phone vibrating even when it isn’t.

And even if we aren’t addicted or don’t check your emails and texts and feeds compulsively, often our mental health is still, in fact, at stake. Certainly our productivity and satisfaction with your life are. For example, Harvard University’s Leslie Perlow’s intervention with the Boston Consulting Group executives was nothing short of transformative. She required that participants establish “Predictable Time Off” (PTO)—time when they would not check their email or work remotely from, say, the family dinner table.

Work satisfaction and, ironically, productivity shot up for the BCG executives, dramatically. Before establishing PTO, only 27 percent were excited to start work in the morning. After PTO, 51 percent were. Before, less than half were satisfied with their job, but after, nearly three-quarters were. Satisfaction with work-life balance went from 38 percent to 54 percent. And people found their work to be more collaborative, efficient, and effective; for example, just establishing PTO made 91 percent of the consultants rate their team as collaborative, up from 76 percent when they were checking their email at all hours of the day and night.

Unplugging isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Click To Tweet

Perlow explains:

Busy managers and professionals tend to amplify—through their own actions and interactions—the inevitable pressures of their jobs, making their own and their colleagues’ lives more intense, more overwhelming, more demanding, and less fulfilling than they need to be. The result of this vicious cycle is that the work process ends up being less effective and efficient than it could be. The power of PTO is that it breaks this cycle, mitigating the pressure, freeing individuals to spend time in ways that are more desirable for themselves personally and for the work process.

Unless we want to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, we need to unplug.

A lot. Specifically, we need to carve out times and spaces that are insulated from checking behaviors. This can be very, very hard when it doesn’t come as a company mandate, as it did at the Boston Consulting Group. But even though it might be difficult, and requires some courage, I promise, it’s worth doing.


This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!