Once upon a time, I was in the midst of a demanding career path that was wearing me down. The content of my work was interesting; I had knowledgeable and insightful colleagues; my clients were learning and growing and thriving.

But I felt overworked, due not only to the hours I was actually at work, but also due to the times when I worked outside of typical hours. Incoming calls from current and prospective clients on the weekend, and before work, and after work—and phone calls at odd hours when someone was desperate and wanted my help. I have been a service-oriented professional for a long time, and I sometimes think I need to be available to everyone all the time. This was one of those times, and it was making me miserable. I arrived at client appointments unhappy to be there, and impatient to be finished. My personal misery was affecting my professional performance, and I had to do something to fix it.

Little by little, I started developing subtle and essential tools to protect myself.

First, I started answering the phone when I knew it was a friend calling. Any unfamiliar number not already in my contact list went to voicemail. Any client calling before 9am or after 6pm went to voicemail. I was pretty nervous about doing this—but my clients barely noticed! I was amazed at how willing people were to simply leave me a message and await my response. Not once did a client accuse me of being uncaring or unprofessional when I called them back later that day, or the next morning.

As it turned out, this was a magically freeing technique. Simply using it consistently alleviated a ton of stress and kept me happily on that same career path for a couple years longer.

Since that particular time, and that particular experiment, I've changed a bit of what I do, content-wise, for work, but I have maintained that same unplugging technique with the phone. It is one of my main sanity-maintenance techniques. I've added another couple of email-limiting techniques to the mix, now that email is my clients' preferred medium.

So. In case you're overwhelmed by a particular source of incoming communication—maybe it's email, or maybe it's phone calls, or maybe it's Facebook and Twitter messages on your phone.... Here's a way to consider limiting your exposure to incoming requests within a particular day, rather than waiting till you can unplug completely.

  1. Look at certain hours of your day as time-outs. Popular times for this are: an hour or two when you wake up; an hour or two before you go to sleep; mealtimes. Maybe your preferred time-outs are different: make it work for you.
  2. Create routines around shutting off the fire hose of incoming communications. If your incoming communications are on an electronic device, you can use a timer on that same device to tell you when to turn it off! If not, there is probably at least one way to limit communications for a certain period of time. 
  3. Stick with those routines you've created! If it's not enough, consider expanding the hours of time-out, or the sources that are being turned off at those hours. Or maybe do both of those! Go crazy—see how much you can limit! If it turns out to be too much, you can always back off a little. 
  4. Breathe. You've got time to do that now, so take advantage!
  5. Before you turn everything back on, consider if any of these things could be something you look at only when you intend to, not just when an alert reminds you. Remember that you have the power here. Use it for good.