I am always on the lookout for “brain food” — seminars, podcasts or articles on subjects of interest to me. One of my regular haunts is the Harvard Business School (HBS) Working Knowledge blog distributed weekly by HBS. You don’t need to be an HBS alum to subscribe, and I highly recommend it.

A recent Working Knowledge issue highlighted a new book by HBS Professor Leslie Perlow called “Sleeping with Your Smartphone.” In the book, Professor Perlow described an experiment she conducted with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), an elite professional service firm where the consultants consistently work many hours per week. In developing her baseline, she discovered through a poll of BCG staff that 70 percent admitted checking their smartphone daily right after getting up, and 56 percent did so right before going to sleep. A full 26 percent confessed to sleeping with their smartphone on the pillow next to them. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It did to me.

Professor Perlow described this situation as being caught in the “cycle of responsiveness.” While the pressure to be always available stems from seemingly legitimate reasons, like being responsive to requests from clients or customers in different time zones, people begin adjusting their work and life schedules, their interactions with friends and family, and their own expectations to make this 24/7 availability the new norm. People checked in frequently just in case something urgent came up, not because they knew it would. Then, insidiously, their own expectations for quick response by others moved into these extra hours. Everyone was caught up in the new behavior, and those who didn’t play along risked being branded as less committed to their work. Even as people began resenting how much their work was spilling into their personal lives, they didn’t recognize they were a major part of the problem, their own worst enemy, in the pressure they felt to be connected all the time.

At BCG, Professor Perlow convinced teams to experiment with something she called PTO, Predictable Time Off, a time when team members would not be expected to check email, answer calls, etc. It was hard at first, but as the team embraced a shared goal to allow each team member to have just one night off per week, they developed systems and processes that would facilitate that, while still allowing the overall team to be responsive to client needs. The business results were profound. Over a period of four years, the Predictable Time Off practice grew from a single BCG team to more than 86 percent of BCG’s teams across five continents. The number of staff who stated they were excited to start work in the morning doubled, and the teams’ perceptions of providing significant value to clients increased from 84 percent to 95 percent. Just as important, BCG clients reported a range of experiences with Predictable Time Off teams, from neutral (nothing seemed different) to extremely positive — no client reported a negative experience.

What are the broader lessons from Professor Perlow’s experiment for us as individuals and as owners and employees of small businesses? I see a few:

  • We, rather than our clients or customers, are the primary decision-makers on how connected we need to be. We set the expectations, and as long as the expectations are clear, we don’t need to worry about negative reactions from those with whom we deal.
  • Even a modest amount of disconnection, like one evening a week, can have a profound impact on personal and work productivity and happiness.
  • Setting a group goal to allow everyone some PTO makes it easier for everyone to comply.
  • Even if you can’t resist looking at your email in the evening, you don’t need to respond immediately, in most cases. Holding your response until the next day helps break the “cycle of responsiveness.”
  • Most mail systems like Outlook allow you to set an “out of office” response to any emails with start and stop dates/times. It’s just as easy to set for an evening as it is for a week.

I recognize the smartphone addition habit in me, and I’ve made a resolution to give Predictable Time Off a try. Join me?