Get unplugged - A guide for productivity, managing stress and digital burnout

Get unplugged - A guide for productivity, managing stress and digital burnout

Bryan Dugan8 min read

Being a user interface designer, living in Michigan with cold winters, I tend to spend a good part of the time in front of the computer or other screens. With a computer-based job, I can work anywhere and anytime with an active internet connection, so it can be tough to get away from it all. As important as it may be to get things done, it is also equally important to get up and take regular breaks away from the computer every once in a while and take care of yourself.

A leader of mine had told me, “No ones going to take care of you, but yourself.” This message has stuck with me, and I use it as a daily reminder to do something to take care of myself. Some days I focus more on exercise, or other days I learn something new.

Avoiding burnout and staying productive

Working on a computer all day leaves a lot of strain on your eyes. It drains your focus, leaving you to feel tired, unmotivated, and feeling burned out in some cases. Once you start feeling overworked and burned out, it can take a long time to recover.

Here are some things that I have added to my lifestyle that have helped my productivity immensely and ultimately helped me feel less stressed. I hope some of these methods will help you as much as they have helped me.

Speak up

If you work for a company under someone, I have learned a common leadership practice that many team leaders love to follow. Keep piling work on the employees until they squeal. The logic behind this is to gauge how productive an employee can be until they hit their breaking point. Once they hit their breaking point, then the manager slows down the tasks.

The problem with this practice is that many employees are too afraid to speak up and confront their boss, to let them know they are overwhelmed. The employee also does not realize that some deadlines are only there to add urgency to a project.

If you are overwhelmed, tell your team leader as soon as problems start. They will likely help you prioritize tasks and keep you on track. If not, then it may be time to look for a new job. Also, remember showing dedication doesn’t mean to be overworked all the time.

The same principle also applies to freelance work. Speak up as soon as a problem arises. Clients will appreciate the transparency and usually help compromise on a solution. With client work, be sure not to make missed deadlines a habit, or else it will hurt your reputation. If you need more time, quote more time. A rule I typically follow is to double the initial time I think it will take to do a project. The reason behind this is the initial time I think of is if everything were to go perfectly. However, this is rarely the case. You have to consider all the unknown factors, such as issues with a framework, research, learning a new skill or plugin, building a new extension, or something is more complicated than anticipated.

Follow the KISS method

A problem that I regularly face is that I tend to overcomplicate things and stress myself out. When stressed out, I always go back to a quote that my layout professor in college had told me quite frequently “Follow the KISS method. Keep it simple, stupid”. Following this method had taught me not to worry so much about every little detail and that a shipped product is better than not having one.

Sometimes, you may be focusing on the wrong thing rather than what needs to be done. Ask yourself. Is this the one thing I should be working on right now? If it is not, write down the one thing, you should be working on and only focus on that.

Make time for YOU

Every morning, I like to get up an extra hour earlier to make time for myself. The first thing I do when I wake up is to have a glass of water. There are multiple benefits to drinking water as soon as you wake up. Drinking water boosts your energy levels and provides more oxygen to the brain. It also helps boost your metabolism and clears toxins. It is easy to go straight for the coffee, but try and have a glass of water first.

After I have a glass of water, I do some form of mediation or breathing exercise. Some morning routines that I have practiced that helped have been the Wim Hof Method or the Miracle Morning routine. Meditation is a stress relief method that is commonly overlooked. It took me a while to like meditating, but once I learned how it became one of my favorite routines. Many successful CEOs and celebrities meditate or have meditated regularly, such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, or Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post. While I prefer meditation, breathing, and exercise in the morning, some people are like it at night. Do whatever is best for you. Here’s a quick mediation for anxiety video on YouTube that has helped me.

Try to find an indoor or garage hobby that isn’t in front of a screen. Do you like woodworking? Take up woodworking. How about playing Dungeons & Dragons? Start painting some miniatures. Find yourself a fun hobby that is off the computer and not related to your profession.

I personally also enjoy long bike rides in the morning or at the end of my workday. They help clear my head and put me in a better mindset. They also help me with de-stressing and give me some alone time to reflect on the day. What did I do great? What could be improved?

Do some stretches, or go for a walk

During my average workday, I try to make it a point to take at least a 15-minute walk. When deadlines are approaching, and stress is at its peak, I find it best to get up and take a short walk to refresh my mind. If I can’t go for a short walk, I’ll at least do some planks, pushups, or general stretches. There is a great podcast episode on that talks about different stretches for people who sit on the computer for most of the day. Taking a short break every hour or two helps me regain my focus and keeps me more productive throughout the day.

While going on walks, I leave my phone off in my pocket, or better yet inside to avoid checking social media and email. If I’m going to bring my phone to listen to a podcast, I make sure it’s not work-related. Instead, I listen to something that’s either self-help or something not related to the task I’m doing. Some podcasts I enjoy listening to are Smart Passive IncomePostlightThe Dollop, and Achieve Your Goals with Hal Elrod. If podcasts aren’t your thing, feel free to listen to some music.

Cut out email, and social media

Living in the digital age, we all like to stay connected to our friends and family. But how do we know when we have crossed the line and became a little too connected? I used to keep my email client open at all times, responding to mail as soon as it comes in. I always had to have the infamous inbox zero and be that “dedicated” employee who quickly responded to their email. Once people realize how fast you respond, they will start to expect it out of you. This is especially true if you respond on nights and weekends. It will begin to become normal for people to try and ask things of you on the weekends or worse-yet, on vacation. You’re not doing yourself any favor by being the person that’s always available. People start to expect it out of you and will take advantage of it.

My job is to be a designer, not email support. While it may not seem like a big deal going to check your email for a minute, every time you check your email and then go back to your work, it may take you a while to get adjusted and pick up where you left off when you got interrupted. On average, it can take 15 minutes to regain focus on your work again after checking your email. I have gone from checking my mail twice daily. Once around 9 am, and once again, about 4-5 pm.

Before starting to check our email less frequently:

  1. Let your boss/project manager know. If something comes up that is urgent and needs to be done immediately, they can personally tell you.
  2. Make them aware of the reasons why you are not checking your mail as frequently as before.
  3. Tell them you want to remain productive, and keeping your Email client open throughout the day is a distraction to you.

Turn off phone notifications or better yet, put your phone in another room

While trying to work and receiving a notification on Facebook or other social media on your phone, it can quickly ruin your productivity. Before you know it, you’re on your phone, scrolling away on social media, and doing other tasks. Those notifications can wait until you’re ready to look at the app yourself. My phone only has notifications enabled for Texting and Calls. Once texts and calls start to get out of hand, I turn on the “Do Not Disturb” feature on my phone when I’m trying to focus. In iOS, the setting is under Settings>Do Not Disturb. Under “Do Not Disturb,” you may also set your preferences so that only specific calls can come in.

When I’m in intense working sessions where I need to focus, I put my phone in another room or at least out of reach until it’s time to take a break.

Go analog for to-do lists

I work on a wide variety of projects daily, and it can be hard to keep track of everything. To keep things simple, I use the Todoist app to write down all my tasks. Each day, I think to myself, what three primary things should be completed today? I write those three tasks down in a notebook in order of most important. So if I didn’t complete all my tasks during the day, at the very least, I have completed or made good progress on my top goal.

For design bug fixes or sites that require many changes, I like to print out a document with a list in order by importance and the website’s section. The feeling of physically crossing something off a list is very gratifying.

I highly recommend the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. This book goes over-focusing on one particular task and helps prioritize your life. Does the job you’re working on really need to be done? What is the number one thing that will help drive success?

I hope that these productivity tips help you as much as they have helped me. Everyone’s workflow is a bit different so feel free to adjust them to suit your needs. If you would like some further reading, check out my list of favorite books on bettering yourself.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to treat or cure any mental illness. If you need help, please seek a professional mental health expert.

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