The Physician Philosopher Podcast

Creating Healthy Boundaries with Technology

From the moment we are old enough to understand that choice is an option in life, we all want it. It is something that all human beings require in order to be happy, fulfilled, and intrinsically motivated to do a good job. Autonomy. The ability to choose for ourselves. And, yet, technology has the propensity to get in the way of our personal autonomy. All. Of. The. Time. Buzzzz…. You just received a text message while at your kid’s football game.

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Yet, the term “Autonomy” is a bit too broad. This word can apply to both personal and professional autonomy. In other words, the ability to control your schedule so that you can make tee-ball games, recitals, weddings, and funerals. This is personal autonomy.

The other is professional autonomy, or the ability to control how, when, and where you work so that you can (in the medical world) take the best care of your patients.

Despite the intrinsic need we all have for autonomy, it is one of the facets of work and home life that is constantly under attack. And not just by forces that are obvious like the Electronic Medical Record system or insurance companies demanding pre-authorizations or denying our care.

Autonomy is also under attack because far too often, we let demands from work (and other sources) sneak into our personal lives. In today’s culture, one of the biggest sources of these demands on our personal lives is our access to texts, calls, emails, and messaging systems. Don’t look now… your cell phone is vibrating off the table because of the notifications.

This ever-pressing creep of this increased technological access to our lives eventually leads to a work-life imbalance that has the potential to crush our friendships, marriages, and relationships with our kids if we let it.

Setting Boundaries

Fortunately, there is a way to fight the good fight when it comes to reclaiming our autonomy. And this is called setting “boundaries”. Before we discuss ways we can use technology to set boundaries, let’s discuss what that term means in the world of coaching first.

A boundary is an “If, Then” statement. And we all have them whether we realize it or not.

For example, it is an unspoken boundary that if you harass one of my children, then you are going to have to deal with me. Don’t come near my cubs or this Daddy bear will become quite hostile. Similarly, there is an expectation that if someone hits me, then they better be ready to rumble.

Some might have other boundaries like “If you smoke in my house, then I will ask you to leave.”

Others have boundaries like “If you raise your voice at me, then I will leave.”

With that in mind, let’s discuss some ways that we can use technology to set boundaries in our life so that we can be more present both when we are work and when are trying to be present with those we love at home.

Focus Mode

The first way is something that has gone from old school to new school. I remember reading in Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Work Week, which came out in 2009, about him wearing ear phones or ear buds in work so that if people came up to him they’d realize he was focusing and would leave him alone.

And, yet, half the time there was nothing playing in the ear phones. The purpose was to put up a sign to others that said “Do not disturb… I’m focusing.”

In our more technologically advanced world, there are actually Do Not Disturb features on phones. On an iphone, you can just swipe down and find “Focus” mode and there are several different kinds. From driving mode to limit distractions there to Do Not Disturb which won’t let any calls or texts come through except from the people you allow (say your spouse or kids).

On Google Pixels, you can just flip the phone over face down, and it has the ability to automatically turn this feature on.

This one feature is what allowed me to write a 250 page book in just 3 months. Something that takes many people years. For 6 hours per day, my phone would be on Do Not Disturb… and I would just write.

You can use this same tool to set boundaries for work so that you can be present at home. (And, yes, you can let certain apps through, too, like the paging app my hospital uses for when I’m on call).

Reduce/Remove Work Email

Another constant threat to our home life is that, with an internet connection, you can check your email at any time. This can be a huge problem.

I deal with this potential threat in two ways.

First, I’ve taken my work email off my phone and people know that I only check my email when I am physically at the hospital. This may sound crazy to you, but after setting this boundary for some time, people know if they want me to remember something to email me… but that it will take a little while (but always less than a week) for me to get it done.

If something is more urgent, they know to call me or text me. Otherwise, shoot me an email and I’ll get to it when I get to it. (Want to learn how Napolean Bonapart did the same thing → check out Episode 47)

The second way that I’ve seen people successfully limit the intrusion of email in their personal lives is to check their email twice per day. Once for thirty minutes in the morning. And once for thirty minutes in the evening.

This limits the inbox from filling up but also allows you to focus on everything outside of your email except for those two thirty-minute periods (where I encourage you to combine this with the first tip I mentioned by putting your phone on Do Not Disturb… so that you get your emails done more efficiently)

Setting Old School Expectations

This one is an “oldie, but goody.” Whenever someone calls me (or even at work when someone walks up) and I am busy, I’ll answer the phone and say “Hey, what’s up?” Then, the person generally tells me why they are calling.

That’s when I lay down the expectation for that conversation. I’ll say something like, “Hey, I’m at home with the kids. So, I literally have two minutes. Is this a conversation we can have in two minutes or do you want to email me so that I can find a better time when I’ll be more available to have this discussion?”

This boundary is clear. If this is going to take longer than 2 minutes, then we will need to have the conversation later. This allows for one of two things: (1) a really efficient conversation or (2) me being able to focus on my kids and have the conversation later.

Use a smart watch

Another way that I use technology to help me set boundaries is that I have an Apple watch that has a cellular connection. With this, I am able to leave my phone at home when I walk to the park to go play with my kids. Or, I can leave it in the truck when I go to a friends house.

This helps set boundaries, because the only two things that come to my watch are messages and phone calls. I’ve removed all of the other notifications.

So, this is an even stricter version of “Do not disturb” mode because I don’t even have the temptation to look at my phone. Because I don’t have it on me.

Turn Off Notifications

Speaking of notifications, this is another way that I set boundaries. Specifically on social media.

Being in the online business space, a social media presence is often required. Many of you may be surprised to know that I have all of my notifications for facebook, instagram, twitter and the like turned off. The only time I see them is when I want to check them.

Not when these apps want to cause mayhem in my dopamanergic reward system everytime a notification sound goes off in my pocket.

All of these things are made to be addictive and distracting. And just like an alcoholic who takes the alcohol out of the house when they decide to get sober, I turn off all of the notifications for apps that I don’t want distracting me, and I’ve even been known at times to remove them from my phone completely and **GASP** use an actual computer to look at my social media profiles when I have the time.

Set down-time for apps

Another way you can limit things that distract you is to set downtime for specific apps like social media or Netflix or whatever may distract you from your goals. Or your family.

I do this for my 11-year-old, Grace, too. She has an ipod (yes, we have fought the good fight for now, but it looks like she will win the smart-phone fight soon enough).

On her iPod, it turns everything off except music and the clock around 8:00pm most nights. Her friends know she cannot message after that. In fact, they often give her a hard time around 7:59 by saying “RIP Grace… see you in the morning.”

This is a boundary I’ve helped my daughter set so that she can have time to wind down and pursue her biggest life’s passion (e.g. reading books) before she goes to bed.

We can do the same things on our phone so that the time doesn’t get away from us.

Turn off read receipts (now they won’t KNOW you are ghosting them)

Finally, if you feel compelled to check every text that comes through on your phone, you can still set an invisible boundary so that others don’t think you are intentionally ghosting them (even if you are).

You can do this by turning off the read receipts on your text messages so that others cannot see that you have read the text.

This way, you can still read the message without feeling the pressure or need to respond immediately. If you need to, you can “pin” the conversation so that you will remember to respond to it later. Another way of getting around this is by reading your texts on the Smart Watch you bought after I mentioned it above where you can read the text on the watch, but it will remain unread on your phone.

That way, no one knows you read it AND you won’t forget when you get back to your phone.

Now… go set some technological boundaries. You and your family deserve it.

Editor’s Note: What? You haven’t purchased the best-selling book that is changing the landscape of medicine? Make sure to snag your copy of Determined: How Burned-Out Doctors Can Thrive in a Broken Medical System. Prefer an audio copy → you can find that here

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