Mathilde Collin was already stressed out from her habit of staying connected 24/7 to Front, the San Francisco-based software startup she co-founded in 2014. Then her co-founder, Laurent Perrin, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Collin was worried about her friend's health, and knew that she would now have to shoulder more of the workload.
It was too much. One day in early 2017, her brain simply shut down. "Whether you call it deep anxiety, or depression, or burnout--whatever it is--that forced me to think about how I would have a better relationship with technology," Collin says.
Collin's experience highlights an all-too-common issue among business leaders. In a November Inc. survey of CEOs and other senior executives from more than 150 Inc. 5000 companies, 56 percent of respondents reported checking their work-related communications "almost constantly" after work hours, even falling asleep phone in hand. And 40 percent said they don't even disconnect when they're on vacation. Fortunately, Collin has taken steps to untether herself from work--and found it has improved her mental health, work-life balance, and even her productivity. Here are some tips for doing so effectively.
A three-pronged approach.
Over the past few years, Collin has tried a variety of strategies for untethering herself. These are the ones that stuck.
First, she removed all work-related apps from her phone. When she's outside the office--her typical work schedule is 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.--she has to pull out her laptop to get any work done. Among other advantages, that decreases the chances of a mobile notification pulling her into a work-related rabbit hole. The tactic actually inspired a companywide health benefit: All Front employees who average less than two hours per day on their phone (shown through screen-time tracking apps) get $200 each month, no strings attached. (Collin uses her money on another de-stressing tool: massages.)
Second, she spends Thursday afternoons working from home--no phone, no computer, only a notebook and a pen. "The goal is for me to step back and think about the things that I'm not thinking about every day," she says. "There is a part of creativity that people don't allow themselves to have because of their impatience. There is a benefit to being bored."
Third, Collin refuses to bring her laptop on vacations, and her lack of work-related mobile apps greatly diminishes the temptation to log on and check in via phone. "If something is extremely urgent--and by urgent, I mean that an employee is about to die, not like when a customer is angry--they can text me," she says.
Her implementation of these strategies has gone hand-in-hand with Front's aggressive growth: The company now has 160 employees and has raised $138.3 million in VC funding. Perrin was declared cancer-free in 2017, and Collin was recognized on Inc.'s 30 Under 30 list in 2018 and Female Founders 100 list in 2019.
Declaring email bankruptcy.
By any measure, Tom Patterson's email backlog was overwhelming. One morning in 2015, the co-founder and CEO of underwear retailer Tommy John arrived in the office to 2,000 messages--a combination of unread emails and older ones that required responses. He spent an hour attempting to clear them out before declaring "email bankruptcy." He deleted every message and set an auto response:
"I am currently checking email before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m., EST so there will be a delayed response. If this is urgent please call or text."
You read that correctly: before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Patterson says he now checks and responds to emails for 30 minutes during his train commute to work in New York City, another 30 minutes during lunch (though you wouldn't know it from his autoresponder), an hour before he leaves the office at 6 p.m., and 30 minutes each weeknight after his kids have gone to bed. Leftover emails get addressed during Friday afternoons, spare pockets of time on weekends, or during plane flights.
"The first week was the hardest part," Patterson says. "You just have that rhythm of waking up, rolling over, pulling email. On the train, pulling email. On the train, in between meetings, going to the bathroom, pulling email. It's an addiction."
The removal of those midday distractions, Patterson asserts, has been a game-changer: He describes feeling more consistently focused and productive over the past five years. Simply being present during meetings, he adds, has helped him cut down on company meeting times by 15 percent. "It's allowed me to spend more time thinking about the bigger picture of the business," he says. "Where do we need to go? How do we get there? Is this the best way I should be using my time? Removing email was, hands down, the biggest way to free up more of my time to do things like that."