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Are You Too Plugged In? How to Break the 24/7 Habit

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Disconnecting From Work: Why It’s Good For You and Your Organization by Leslie Perlow author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work.”

'Sleeping With Your Smartphone' by Leslie A. Perlow
'Sleeping With Your Smartphone' by Leslie A. Perlow

How much pure, guilt free time off do you have?

Not the lucky accidental hours away from work with no calls or e-mails, but pre-planned hours, sacrosanct on the calendar when you disconnect completely from professional responsibilities without experiencing that nagging urge to keep checking your electronic devices?

If you are like the thousands of executives I have spoken with about this possibility, you perk up at the idea, but then quickly find yourself pointing out just how impractical that would be in your day-to-day work-life.

After all, if you refrain from e-mailing, colleagues will still e-mail you—and you don’t want to let them down. If you stop working long hours and always being accessible, others will likely speed past you on the career ladder. You never know when the client or customer will call, or what the demands of managing across time zones will present.

And let’s face it: when the phone buzzes, few of us have the mental fortitude to ignore it.

However, through my research, I have discovered that when team members work together to ensure that they each take discrete units of “predictable time off” not only do the individuals, but also the organization benefits.

How can that be? Because, as we work together to challenge assumptions about how we work, we find new ways of working that make the time off possible. We better prioritize, collaborate, and integrate work across the team, and as a result, our work processes become more efficient and effective. In turn, we find the work we are doing more fulfilling and we gain more control over our work lives.

Consider the results at the Boston Consulting Group(BCG), a prominent global strategy consulting firm, where teams worked together to take a weekly unit of predictable time off. Consultants reported being more satisfied with both their work (72 percent vs. 49 percent) and work-life balance (54 percent vs. 38 percent). In addition, BCG found that employees were more likely to plan to stay at the firm for the longer term (58 percent versus 40 percent) and more likely to perceive that they were delivering significant value to their clients (95 percent versus 84 percent).

Best of all, to achieve these results does not require a large investment from the organization or even the buy-in of the CEO or other senior leaders.

Here’s the secret: You cannot do it alone. When you turn off, others do not, and so work may well pile up and emergencies can go unanswered. But when a team works together to embrace a small, doable collective goal of predictable time off and sets time each week to discuss progress – what worked, what didn’t and what it will take to achieve the goal next week – remarkable things happen.

All you need to get started is to commit as a team to a time off goal that you will strive to make possible for yourselves and each other, each week. The goal needs to be doable, but also a stretch. If the unit of time off is too small, it won’t force you to challenge your current ways of working and discover new ones. If, however, the unit of time off is too big, as soon as the going gets tough you will give up and nothing will change. The right goal for your group might be time off for a single evening, or multiple, or even an entire afternoon, depending on the nature of your work. What matters is that you choose a goal – neither too big nor too small – and work together to achieve it.

Don’t waste time – get together with your team, choose a goal and you’ll be on your way to better work and better lives for all involved.

Leslie Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School and author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work” (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2012)

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks