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DevOps Engineer | Pluralsight Author | Speaker | Blogger | PowerShell Advocate

On-Call Reset Protocol

Digital minimalism is a difficult thing to implement when your job requires you to glue your cell phone to your hip and be within fifteen minutes of jumping on a zoom call to respond to an outage or incident. Yes, I’m talking about being on-call. On-call does suck, but what can we do about it when we desire to be less attached to technology, not more? This has been a question in my mind for quite some time, for several reasons. The primary reason being, on-call throws my routine way off. I have been using an app called Moment, where I can see my cell phone usage go from twenty minutes per day to an hour and a half to two hours a day. Being on-call has become a way for distractions to creep back into my life. I start to watch YouTube videos, check Twitter more often, and unlock my phone four to five times more than normal just to relock it or check Slack and lock it again. For many of us, being on-call is an inescapable reality. It’s part of the job and unless we want to change careers, it will always be this way. While there isn’t much we can do about going on-call, we can certainly limit it’s impact on our life after our shift is over. In an attempt to constrain the effects on-call has on my off call days I’ve created an on-call reset protocol and that’s what I’ll be sharing in this blog post.

1. Cell Phone on Airplane Mode

At 8:00am the morning I go off call, my cell phone goes on airplane mode. I have Imessage setup on my laptop and if someone really needs me I can be alerted there. There is no need for me to have my cell phone on and at my desk after I’m on-call. The only exception to this is a brief period when I need it for multi factor authentication. This is probably alarming to some people and would make them feel rather uncomfortable. What ifs start to creep into their minds. What if I miss an important call? What if I miss a Tweet? What if I miss… the list goes on and on. The reality is you’re probably not going to miss much. Keep track for a while, see if you get any important messages. I bet you can go weeks with zero super important messages. Your cell phone has a lot less power over you when it doesn’t constantly alert you and isn’t visibly seen. Which is the next step in my protocol.

2. Put the Cell Phone Away and Leave It There

After I put the cell phone on airplane mode, I put it in the file cabinet next to my desk. I do this because, for me, having the cell phone visible is too much of a temptation for me to check it. If it isn’t visible I have no problem ignoring it all day. I also choose to not carry my cell phone on me. If I leave my office for any reason, my cell phone stays in the file cabinet. I’ll often go days without checking it and with it on airplane mode the battery lasts forever. This choice is the single most impactful choice I make to reclaiming my sanity. Without that device to steal the little moments, I have more time to think about what I’m doing and what I want to do with my time at work or outside of work. Okay, yes. I’m being a little hard on the cell phone. But, it tries to destroy my brain so..

3. Review To-Dos

While I’m on-call I typically generate a long list of things I want to do, but can’t get to. This list consists of personal to-dos, for example, taxes. It also consists of project work, twenty percent work, such as learning more about docker or aws, and most importantly it consists of on-call retrospective items. These are things I observed we could make better during the on-call rotation. I typically capture these things in a wiki page and bring them up with the team to make sure they make their way on the board. If I don’t review this list and prioritize it, I’ll just sit there wondering what to do or that list will eat at my mind because I know there is stuff to do, but don’t know what to work on in the moment. This also is a prerequisite for the next step.

4. Plan Deep Work Sessions

After reviewing the to-dos, I prioritize them and gather details on what I need to do. For example, a task might be to setup PowerShell remoting over SSH to the jump box. I’ll research how to do it, find a few blog posts and a few people’s questions, and then stage that work for a deep work session, where I’ve given myself time to troubleshoot. I’ll only plan for a few tasks at a time. This prevents me from wasting a lot of time planning everything out just to have my priorities change. I typically only plan for one or two days worth of deep work sessions.

5. Schedule Deep Work Sessions (Become Hard to Reach)

Once the work has been planned, I schedule deep work sessions. I’m my most productive in the morning and mid afternoon. I’ve done a pretty good job at avoiding meetings around those times, but I’m coming to find that if your calendar is open, people will schedule things… So I’m starting a new habit of putting in one hour blocks of time in my Outlook calendar for the deep work sessions. I’m thinking I’ll block out my calendar one week at a time, even though I won’t have work planned for say Friday if it’s Monday. I also become very hard to reach during those times. I close Outlook, Slack and any other app of communication. I limit my open apps to the ones needed to do the work. With the exception of Spotify, which I guess I do need for the work. It’s got to be either speed metal or relaxing instrumental music.

6. Schedule Breaks from Focus

In Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, he has a phrase that stuck with me- “Don’t take breaks from distractions, instead take breaks from focus.” I’ll be honest, I SUCK at this. I have this tendency to push myself until I have nothing left. At which point I go downstairs to eat dinner with my family and my wife asks “What’s wrong?” I reply of course with “Nothing, I’m just exhausted…mentally.” I add the mentally because you shouldn’t complain about being tired to a mother of small children. I’m not sure adding the mentally part actually helps much. Perhaps I should omit that part. At any rate, the goal should be to not be exhausted and leave something of myself left for my family. That’s why I’ll be putting conscious effort into taking breaks from my focus. I’ve started by scheduling a family walk in the early afternoon. I’ll be blocking the calendar off for thirty minutes to enjoy the nicer weather we’re having and detach from work. I’ll have to find something else when it’s winter again, but for now it’s a step forward.

7. Read More

The final step in my protocol is to read more. I’ve found without my cell phone there are a lot of little void moments. Those moments are my moments of weakness. They are when I go looking for my phone or open my laptop and check things. Reading is a better use of that time so instead of carrying a phone with me, I carry a physical book. It’s quite astonishing how quickly you can read books when you read a page here and there throughout the day. I usually have a highlighter with me to capture important things and take notes later. Carrying a notebook in addition to the book I’m reading was too much baggage but a book and highlighter is doable. On a personal note, I do this to model to my children. I want them to see me reading. I want to show them I’m aiming to learn and improve everyday. My hope is they’ll do the same when they’re older.