Finding balance in an always-on world

Jon Staff’s new book gives practical tips on how to achieve a better work life balance in today’s fast-tech life and there are some that bear a passing resemblance to some of the activities we have been doing in lockdown.

Life-work balance at home


Jon Staff is author of Getting Away: 75 Everyday Practices for Finding Balance in Our Always-On World, published this week by Penguin Random House. The book is described as an invitation to make space for self-care and deeper connection with others. Its 75 tips are about how we can make simple changes in our day-to-day routines to get a better work life balance. The book is based on Staff’s experience of starting the company Getaway, which offers tiny-house retreats for connecting with people and disconnecting devices. The aim is to give people time, space, and permission to be “off” from their technology-filled lives. He spoke to about his book. Many of the practices you suggest in the book are ones that have become familiar in lockdown as we have been forced to be more local and find things to do such as jigsaws or gardening. Do you think lockdown will be positive for work life balance? Will it make people rethink their lives and particularly the importance of their relationships?

Jon Staff: People who have been staying at home and are working find themselves in a unique situation. While they appreciate perks such as no commuting, no office distractions, casual attire and a flexible schedule, they face new challenges, including differentiating “work hours” from “home hours,” remembering to take regular breaks and switching off, resulting in longer workdays. Many of the tips included in Getting Away are applicable to our current state of working remotely. I think people will take what they’ve learned about their working style in quarantine and translate it back to the office.

Not only are people learning how to work more efficiently and effectively while working at home, but we’re learning how to stay connected to friends and family while keeping our distance. More people are turning to handwritten letters and other tech-free activities, given the increase in video calls and consumption of news on all devices. It’s so important to maintain connections to those you love, even if it looks a bit different in the interim.

Getaway’s mission is to provide people the time, space and permission to be “off”, even at home, and we think practising new habits for self-care, stress reduction and maintaining healthy technological relationships will ultimately lead to a happier and healthier lifestyle.

wms: A lot of the activities hark back to the past, eg, listening to the radio, reading print newspapers, doing crosswords… It is like the activity equivalent of comfort food. Do you think the current generation will find some of the things they do in their childhood similarly comforting in the future or is there something intrinsic about these activities which is more calming?

JS: Absolutely both. In our daily lives, we become so immersed in work, news, technology and mental and physical stress, that we rarely take the time for ourselves to enjoy the little or simple things in life, such as puzzles, bird watching, star gazing or just listening to music. Studies have shown that tasks like puzzles, or creating something with your hands, can bring about peace, clarity and contentment. It’s also been proven that nostalgia brings comfort and helps people better deal with stress and anxiety. It’s becoming increasingly important to put away phones and devices – be at the dinner table, interacting with children or out with friends – and give ourselves ample time to unplug and reset.

wms: There are similar themes running through the book – connecting with nature, reading, appreciating others, the arts generally, being local and digital detox. Many of these centre around slowing down, taking time and reconnecting with the world around us. For children time with their parents is the most important thing. Are you in favour of the four-day week as a way of getting greater balance and also of addressing job loss in the wake of COVID-19?

JS: Getaway’s mission to give people time, space and permission to be “off” applies to Getaway employees as well. I’m committed to helping employees maintain a healthy work/life balance, thus one of the requirements for all full-time employees is taking 20 vacation days a year – and if they don’t, it comes up as a negative in their performance review. Most Americans don’t take all of their vacation days, yet it’s crucial to their work/life balance.

I also allow all employees to work from wherever they are going to be most productive, and I actively encourage people to stay offline during their “off” time. When employees are on vacation, they are required to set an autoresponder so they are less tempted to jump into their inbox.

In addition to mandatory vacation, Getaway offers two Fridays off a month, called a “Getaday,” which acts like an extra holiday to balance some of the other days where people are giving a bit extra of themselves. We encourage the team not to treat these like vacation days, but instead to treat them as days for rest and recharge.

wms: When it comes to work, you advocate distinct boundaries between work and life, but some parents advocate blurring of the line to get the flexibility they need [though not to the degree we have had to do in lockdown…]. Does it depend on what works best for each person’s circumstances and personality?

JS: Of course, each person’s working style is unique. What’s most important is that a person takes the time to focus on mental and physical well-being and fulfillment, not just productivity, during the work day.

wms: What advice do you have for parents having to get to grips with homeschooling while working or working around childcare, which often means they have very little time for themselves, something that looks like continuing for some time?

JS: First off: I don’t have kids, so I feel pretty unqualified to answer this, and pretty in awe of those of you who do. In general, I think that every moment counts. Use the time that you do have to yourself wisely, and remember that this working and living situation won’t last forever. I like to meditate for a few minutes every day. Studies have found that meditating for even five minutes a day can reduce stress and its symptoms. Just taking a few deep breaths is enough to lower our blood pressure and slow our heart rate down.
Meditating regularly can also improve focus, attention and mood, so we’re better equipped to take on our kids’ maths homework and that big work presentation on the same day.

wms: What has the impact of COVID-19 been on your business?

JS: We have always placed the health, wellness and safety of our customers above all else, and after careful review, we determined our secluded and private cabins provide a safe and relaxing experience for guests during this difficult time. We’re experiencing a collective first, and there’s no baseline to reference, no simple choices and no clear answers. Our starting point, as always, was to listen to our guests. What we heard is that being home all the time isn’t simple, or possible, for everyone, and there’s a strong need
and desire for Getaway.

It’s important to note we have been taking every precaution, in accordance with Centre for Disease Control [CDC] guidelines and local officials, to ensure all Outposts are a safe place for our guests to stay and for our team to maintain. We are continuing to comply with CDC guidelines and local officials as the pandemic continues.

We are in a unique position though, as Getaway cabins are naturally socially distant. They are secluded, private, have no check-in or check-out desk, no communal spaces and are located between 40-200 feet from other cabins.

wms: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future, given the challenges ahead for many people?

JS: I believe we’ll all come out on the other side affected in some way or another, and it will take time for our mental and physical well-being to readjust. We created Getaway as a safe space to disconnect and recharge, and even if you aren’t able to get to one of our Outposts, there are many ways to find the balance we’re all seeking – especially now.

*Getting Away by Jon Staff is published by Penguin Random House, price £17.29.

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