how can I get away from work on the weekends and in the evenings?

A reader writes:

I’m in the middle of the hierarchy at a very small company. Two people report to me, and I report to two people, but they trust me and I have a lot of autonomy and decision-making power. My two reports and I work a pretty standard schedule, with a few weekends and trips thrown in, but my two bosses have a more flexible schedule.

And therein lies the problem — because they’re so flexible, we end up working all the time. They don’t see that much of a difference between Saturday and Monday, but I do! So I’m writing this on Saturday at 2:30 pm, my first day off since 4th of July weekend, and I’ve gotten about half the level of emails and requests that I would get on a weekday already. I answer the ones I can, ignore the more involved ones, and try to protect my two reports from having to do anything, but I’m getting really stressed and I feel like I’m never “off.” This happens on weekday nights, too, usually all night.

Is there anything I can do to encourage less of this? Subtle behavior modification? I don’t want to be paid for my time (we’re all exempt, anyway) — I just want to feel like I have some time to myself!

P.S. I know some commenters will say to just turn my phone off, but I’ve been participating in this for so long and it’s so ingrained that I don’t think anyone would take the hint. And I would be antsy anyway!

I wrote back and asked: “Are you sure that they expect you to respond over the weekend? And if you are sure, what makes you sure? What would happen if you waited until Monday?”

The letter-writer’s response:

Well, with some of them it’s pretty clear that they don’t expect a response until Monday, so I ignore those. Others are time sensitive or involve clients, and I think I’ve conditioned them that they can expect me to answer those if possible.

The gray area is when there are long email chains where technically I don’t have to respond, but I would be out of the loop or miss out on some opportunities, or not be able to suggest things that might work better if I didn’t participate.

Maybe I should just ignore them all for a weekend and see what happens though! The pressure might be coming from myself rather than outside?

Yep, that’s the first thing I’m going to suggest.

Many, many times people become resentful of expectations that they assume others have of them, when in fact the expectations are all internal.

There’s a difference between your managers working on the weekend or at night and their expecting others to do the same. Some people like working in the evenings or on the weekend, especially when they have a flexible schedule (which your bosses do) — but plenty of times they’re well aware that not everyone works like that and they don’t expect others to mirror their schedules. That might not be the case here, of course; maybe your managers do expect instant answers at odd hours — but you shouldn’t be assuming that just because of the timestamps on their emails.

And if you haven’t actually talked about this explicitly with them, then it’s entirely possible that you’re misreading their intentions.

So, I would do the following:

1. Stop checking your email and responding to email and phone calls over the weekend. Try this for one weekend and see what happens. If everything seems to go fine, try it for a second weekend and see what happens. Still fine? That might be your answer.

2. If you’re concerned about stopping cold turkey without warning anyone, then you can check one time per day. At that point, you can answer anything truly urgent. If something isn’t truly urgent but you think the sender will be concerned if they don’t get an answer from you until Monday because of the pattern you’ve established, then send back a quick note saying, “Wanted to let you know I saw this and will get back to you on Monday.” But your goal is to wean them off even those responses over time.

(You could even set up an out-of-office auto-reply for the weekends if you want to make sure people know not to expect a response right away.)

3. If this will truly be a massive change and you’re concerned about how it will go over, then talk to your managers about it. Tell them that you’re going to be less available on weekends and evenings — or that you’re going to make an effort to spend your evenings and weekends recharging away from work and the computer — and that you want to mention it since you know you have a history of responding quickly during those times. Ask them if that raises any concerns for them.

You might hear that it’s fine. Or you might hear that they’d rather you be at least a little bit accessible — like, say, checking your email once or twice per weekend but only responding for certain types of things. (And that’s not unreasonable in some types of jobs — but it’s a lot better than what you’re doing now.) Or, yes, you might hear that they think your plan is insane and how could you possibly think that weekends are for time off? If that’s the case, then you’ll have a clear answer to the “is this pressure coming from myself or from my managers” question, and at that point you can decide if that’s a job you want.

But the place to start is by not assuming that the presence of an email means a response is instantly required. That alone might hugely raise your quality of life.

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