Pandemic parenting has led to a lot more TV time in my household than I'd like. When it's time to turn off the TV, it's really difficult for my kids to readily accept that shift, no matter how many hours they've just spent glued to their screens. It's addictive, and I, too, have been known to spend full days binge-watching my favorite shows.
"But I'm watching my SHOOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!" My son will yell and scream as I tell him it's time to turn it off. I nod and answer firmly but with compassion.
"I know. It's so hard to step away, and I know you were really having a good time with your show. It's my job to keep you healthy, and part of that is making sure your eyes and brain get a break from the TV, so I'm going to take it away now."
Sometimes he accepts this answer, and sometimes he stomps his feet and tells me I'm a mean mommy. This is a reasonable and expected way for a child to act. Sometimes facing those tantrums can be annoying and hard and uncomfortable for me, but I know I'm doing the right thing for my family.
Setting rules for my children is not only my responsibility, it's my honor. In setting rules and helping them to understand boundaries, I'm giving them a security system. I'm telling them, "I understand you can't pull yourself away from the TV. It's SO hard. I'm here to help. I'm here to draw that line for you, even if you can't do it yourself, because I know it's best for you. "
Now, I'm not advocating for a super strict household—I think every family needs to set the rules that work for them. In fact, I have very few rules in my house, but when a rule is established, it's always enforced. The boundary I lay down is solid.
I'm just like my kids
I've been having a tough time with my own screen addictions. Particularly with Slack. I check my work Slack at all hours, day or night, whether I'm working or not. Up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea how detrimental this was for my mental health.
I care deeply about the work I do, and I sincerely enjoy the people I work with, so it didn't seem like too much of a problem to be checking in so much.
Last week, I tried to nail down why I was compelled to look at Slack so frequently. I couldn't actually bring myself to delete the app from my phone, so I decided to write down every time I felt compelled to check it—instead of actually checking it.
It went like this:
10:15 a.m.: I want to know what happened with a ticket
10:20 a.m.: I want to know if I was right or wrong about something
10:23 a.m.: I want to know if I was right or wrong about something
10:28 a.m.: I want to know if I was right or wrong about something
10:30 a.m.: I want to know if I was right or wrong about something
And then I checked Slack.
Willpower isn't enough—external boundaries can help
My work anxiety was fully ruling my life. I couldn't make it more than 15 minutes when I was relying on my own willpower.
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen recently wrote an article about remote work in a post-pandemic world:
In our current framework, boundaries are the individual's responsibility, and when they're broken, it's because the individual failed to protect them. But guardrails? They're there to protect everyone, and they're maintained by the state, AKA your company. There are a lot of ways to actually build guardrails around [employees'] lives... But the larger shift has to be away from all of this worthless "personally-maintained boundaries" bull****.
I'm not suggesting every company needs enforced rules that prohibit folks from checking Slack, email, and other tools after hours. I do think it's important to understand that there is value in moving the responsibility of maintaining a boundary away from being on individual workers.
We do not operate in silos. My desire to stay away from Slack is always going to compete with my desire for validation, comfort, relief, and general boredom that checking Slack helps to satisfy. It's a lot to take on, and I don't think I should have to do it alone.
I asked my manager to help me out, to be my "parental" figure in this regard.
"I'm having a really hard time staying off Slack, and I need your help," I told him. "I want you to make it a rule that I'm not allowed to be on Slack when I'm not actively working. I want you to tell me to delete Slack from my phone."
And he did.
It didn't matter that I asked for this rule—I needed to hear someone other than me saying, "I hear your struggle. I'm in it with you. I'm going to hold the line when you cannot."
Guardrails are automation
Here at Zapier, we want to democratize automation—to give people freedom from tasks that computers can do for you instead. Lately, I've been thinking: isn't automation just defining rules for how events need to happen, and taking yourself out of the equation when those rules are put into practice?
Is it lazy if you tell a computer to add each Facebook lead to your Google Sheet so you don't have to? No. It's you setting up a system so that you end up with more freedom to do other things.
By asking my manager to uphold this rule, I'm automating it. It's now a rule. It's not up for discussion. The boundary is enforced, and I don't have to be there enforcing it.
I deleted Slack from my phone, and I've felt a huge sense of relief. Do I still feel the urge to check it? Sure, but it's lost some of its hold on me because I've broken my habitualized pattern, and because I know I am not alone in the struggle. My manager now has a standing item on his to-do list: "Make sure Breetel stays off Slack during non-working hours!"
This is just the first step
The rule that I created, and that my manager took on, is a ritual. It was a way for me to ask for help, to bring a problem into the light, and to gain support. It's not a solution: it's step one in addressing a bigger issue. If I achieve this goal—if I never check Slack again during non-work hours—the root issue will remain.
I check Slack so often partly out of habit, but also because I'm seeking validation and connection, and those unmet needs are still going to be there when Slack is not. Instead of fulfilling those needs, Slack was distracting me from them.
When my kids are grown, I won't be there to limit their TV time. The ultimate goal in setting boundaries for your kids is that they eventually internalize them, so they can be their own authority. It's not enough for my children to learn "TV is bad" (it's not). I want them to learn to take care of themselves beyond immediate gratification.
The rules are important, essential even. But they are the first step.
You can start by using an app that's specifically meant to block distractions—or specific apps. The team at Zapier tested a bunch of them, and here are the best apps for focusing and blocking distractions.