Cell phones make it possible for us to be connected to everything all the time, take business with us through an array of ever evolving apps, and communicate with each other wherever we are. We can get business done everywhere.

With that ability to always connect has come an unwritten set of expectations or pressures for quicker response times creating what often feels like a continuously accelerating pace of business. Ironically, because of that many of us seem to be spending more and more time talking about our desires to get better work life balance and even change our cell phone habits despite how much they do for us.

When I talk with people about my perspectives on cell phones, I get some funny looks. I know what they are thinking. How can a relatively young guy can say things that sound like what you'd expect to hear from your grandfather who started every sentence with "Back in my day..."

For all of the good things cell phones do for us, is our mental health truly better off for having them?

It might not be. The benefit that cell phones give us of making work ubiquitous might actually be the problem.

The trap of undefined boundaries

The cell phone has created undefined boundaries. In return, we get incredible flexibility.

We also get some unintended consequences, though, mostly the lack of dedicated time focused on things not called work making us feel less balanced than ever. We can always be reached. And most of us (myself included) always allow ourselves to be reached even when on vacation.

More and more, we find ourselves saying something as simple as, "I just need to take this one call..." which becomes a slippery slope to "I just need to send out this one document..." to falling all the way down the hill to "Where's the FedEx Office on this deserted island paradise so I can get this work done?"

Recently, I found myself being guilty of being that guy while out on paternity leave of all things. I found myself checking my e-mail on my cell phone simply out of habit and ease of accessibility, which resulted in my clients sending more messages despite the fact that we both knew I was supposed to be away from work.

I, of course, found myself responding and saying, "this will only take a minute..." more times than I would have liked and even having the urge to check work e-mail while bottle-feeding my one-month old at one point.

I clearly needed help.

The value of compartmentalization

Upon returning to work after a paternity leave that I never really took, I tried something different. Instead of continuing with this technology aided work-life "blend", I decided to do an experiment and take things in the completely opposite direction towards uncompromising compartmentalization.

In other words, work time would be for work and work things only. "Life" time would be for life and life things only. There would be no compromise.

The last part of that bold proclamation admittedly sounds a bit overly dramatic, but I needed something that cut and dry or I'd slip back into checking work e-mail on my phone while in line at Disneyland. Since my cell phone was still going to be with me all of the time (for family emergencies, of course), I needed something to hold me to it. I came up with three simple rules:

  1. I would not use my cell phone for work while at the gym. That meant no checking e-mails while on the tread mill, no work voice mail checks on the elliptical machine, and no "this will only be a quick call to this client..." calls in between sit-up sets. I felt a little embarrassed that I needed that rule until I went to the gym the next day and listened in on a stair-master conference call being held by the random stranger who was working out next to me. Well, it wasn't me this time.
  2. I would turn my cell phone off when with family. Waiting in a really long line would no longer constituted a legitimate excuse to check e-mail or send a quick work text.
  3. I would not check my cell phone for anything work related one hour before I went to bed. Checking it in the past had only sucked me into the rabbit hole and ensured that I did not get a restful night's sleep.

When I first came up my cell phone rules, I suddenly knew how our 16 year old felt when we came up with these kinds of rules for him. Ironically, I felt just a little bit of an adolescent urge to rebel against myself.

Fortunately, I restrained myself. Has this uncompromising compartmentalization of my cell phone usage concept worked to suddenly give me work-life balance? I have my good days and bad days, but my workouts at the gym are a lot better and I'm sleeping better. That's a good start.