When unplugging is unrealistic

urt Steinhorst suggests how EAs can create balance in a hyper-connected workforce.

We’ve never had so much within immediate reach and been so immediately reachable; never been responsible for so much information yet retained so little and never been more connected whilst facing so many interruptions. In short, we’ve never been so distracted – but we feel we must succumb. We seek to be all things to all people, with the door always open. We don’t take our eyes off our screens and we become, as Thoreau once warned, tools of our tools.

As you facing an increasingly complex and challenging EA role, I want to show you there’s a better way – I call it being focus-wise. But to get there, we must break down a number of outdated notions of work.

Separating work and life
I’ve seen earnest people preach total separation between home and work life: At 6pm, I turn off my phone and don’t look at it until 8am the next day. As an EA, you’ll know that’s just not realistic. What if a task dominates your thoughts? And is it wrong to devote 15 minutes to focused work at home so you can truly relax with friends that evening? What if a vital conference call can only be scheduled at 7pm? How unreasonable would it be to go home at 4pm, hang out with the family then retreat to another room for an hour? Technology can make working at home really convenient…

The total separation approach also migrates to the office: no personal calls or texts; blocking out the world and focusing only on work. But what if you need to call your mortgage adviser about the new house you are hoping to buy, because she leaves at 5? Or you can only answer your spouse’s text about whether to buy tickets for a popular show after it sells out.

Evidently, for most of us, work and life are inextricably intertwined – and what technology has joined together; let no man separate. The goal is to thrive at both work and home by proactively knowing when to separate and intermingle rather than reacting to whatever each demands.

Tension not balance
The demands on an EA mean becoming comfortable living within the tension of knowing you may achieve rare moments of balance, but the bulk of your existence is the swaying back and forth and intermingling between the various roles we play.

We expect ourselves to give 100 percent in every sphere of life but feel guilty we aren’t giving enough to any – you need to be the best employee and the best parent, for example. That means attending all football tournaments, be home when the kids get home and don’t be a slave to work. But you aren’t a great parent if the company you work for goes belly up or you get fired. See the tension?

We’d do well to entrepreneur Ben Patterson: “Balance is the lie that says, ‘I can do everything.’ There is no balance. But there is a convergence of priorities that is primarily defined by what I say no to.”

So, constantly adjust your footing to meet the demands of the moment. Sometimes, work requires more, and that’s okay. Sometimes you need to take a day off to re-calibrate with your family – that’s okay too.

Controlled access, not constant availability
Rather than fixating on work/life balance, as an EA you should think in terms of degrees of access – being intentional with to whom, how much and when you’re accessible. Be careful not to allow everyone open access when only a small number of people actually need it.

Your boss may have unrealistic expectations and might interrupt your workflow without any consideration of the consequences. While an understanding of what those decisions cost them would be helpful, changing their approach is seldom realistic and it’s not necessary – the rest of the world is the best place to start:

  • First, learn that if you’re always available to everyone, you’re never fully available to anyone. By switching constantly between spheres you diminish your contribution in each. Ironically, always-available employees overvalue their contribution and justify working less when they’re supposed to be working fully.
  • Barriers are the only way to stem interruption. Murphy’s Law of attention says that if people can interrupt, they will So, the easier it is to reach you, the more likely that interruption will be trivial. You may start to believe that there are people whose entire job is figuring out how to keep you from getting work done. And if this happens to you, it also happens to those you are working with and for.
  • People often ask questions when they know the answers. They want approval, but don’t need it; they want to avoid responsibility, but need to take it. Being unavailable frees you up to do the things you need to do and forces others to use their own judgment, becoming less dependent upon you in the process.
  • We can also be blind to our own part in the cycle. In the absence of barriers, we may not perceive the cost to others’ resources when we delegate or check-in excessively. It can become easy to forget they often need us to get out of the way – even if it’s just one quick question.

So, while a few people deserve more access to you than others, no-one deserves access to you all the time. Therefore, it’s never been more critical for your long-term success as an EA to create intentional space where you’re fully unavailable – I call this a focus vault.

Think about gyms – we go because our jobs leave us stationary. The irony is that there’s nothing in a gym we can’t get for free somewhere else. We have the equivalent of pull-up bars (trees), free weights (furniture), and treadmills (parks) in abundance. But we go to gyms because they’re distinct places set apart for something we need, which our stationary lifestyle doesn’t naturally give us.

A focus vault is the equivalent to a gym – but for your attention health. It’s an unreachable place where you go for defined periods to focus on your most important tasks. It helps preserve attention and keep unwanted distractions (human and digital) away. It’s a place to burn the fat of distraction, exercise your imagination and build-up muscle memory for focused attention.

An effective vault separates you from everyone else and can be anywhere. Simply disconnect from the internet; turn off the dings and pings and save your “open-door policy” for non-vault time. Your executive will live – and learn.

Responsibility not responsiveness
Our constantly connected world mistakenly equates responsiveness with responsibility. There’s a popular belief that 24/7 availability and immediate response times are the requirement for high octane organizations. Email trumps any other task we should be doing, so we suffer through all of it (the relevant and the inconsequential) to make sure the one e-mail we need doesn’t get lost in the noise.

But the truth is that experiments in which organisations have curtailed messaging have led to happier, more relaxed employees. Low-value output shrinks (along with work hours!) but the important stuff still gets done.

People, including the boss, often expect immediate replies. They may feel entitled to your response but really deserve your most responsible self. So, where do you start?

Most people let their inboxes determine priority; attacking assignments in the order they arrive. Others gauge which of their colleagues sound most insistent and start there. The quick dopamine hits make us feel like we’re getting work done when really we’re just keeping busy. The point of work isn’t to keep busy. The point of work is to accomplish meaningful goals.

Start each day by asking yourself “What do I absolutely need to accomplish today?” Then tackle your most mentally exhausting tasks first. Focused attention is an energy exhaustive system. And, although your brain is only about 2 per cent of your body weight, it consumes 20 per cent of your daily calories. Every bit of energy you spend focusing intently on a task decreases what you’ll have to focus on the next. So, do those hefty proposals now and write email responses later.

Working together
Of course, being focus-wise doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s a team effort. The vault only works if those who want to reach you know when and why you’re not available.

So, schedule in-person meetings with the key people in each sphere of life. What are reasonable expectations for your availability? What channels should be used when? It’s amazing how quickly you’ll turn a source of distraction into an advocate for your focus.

Today’s constantly connected world is like a complex ocean with swells, currents, and winds – each condition can spell danger or opportunity. Of course, you can’t escape the ocean, but you can decide whether you’ll navigate the choppy waters on a raft or a sailboat. Although unplugging completely is probably very unrealistic for you as an EA, but a focus-wise workday is still well within your grasp.


Curt is an author, speaker, business owner and entrepreneur. A distraction expert, he equips professionals across the world, from Fortune 100 companies and global leadership associations to Universities and not-for-profits, to work smarter and stronger in this constantly-connected age.