Unless you’ve been living in a cave since the mid-90’s, it’s probably not news to you that the domination of electronic technology in our lives is growing to a level that not only threatens to do great harm to our overall quality of life, but there is overwhelming evidence that significant damage has already occurred.
The amount of time that we are spending relating to and through our devices has grown exponentially in recent years and the cost of that growth has come largely at the expense of the things that are seen as the essential factors in promoting good health, quality relationships, and a high level of personal well being. Because we all have a finite amount of time and energy available to devote to the ways in which we choose to spend our time, more screen time means less time for other activities. In other words, when you add another variable to the equation, something’s gotta give.
Apparently what has been giving is what been referred to as “quality time”. What most people are referring to when they use that phrase is time that is spent in service to an intention to provide experiences that promote fulfillment, interpersonal connection, meaning, pleasure, and an overall sense of well being.
Two widely-held beliefs assert that quality time can be achieved by relating through electronic devices, and that a deficiency of face-to-face time can be compensated for by more Facebook time. The indisputable fact is that there is a real difference between relating to someone electronically and communicating with them when you are in each other’s physical presence. Which is not to say that face-to-face interactions are the only kind of communication that is worth having. There is no question that there are numerous aspects of electronic communication and messaging that are time saving, expeditious, and efficient, especially in the domain of work. When it comes to exchanging or delivering information, emails, cell-phones, and text messages can get the job done much faster and efficiently than face to face conversations, particularly if you’re speaking with someone in another city or another continent!
Yet there can be such a thing as too much of a good thing. In a world in which the norm has become the expectation that workers of all levels are expected to be available and responsive to electronic messages 24/7, breaking free from our attachment (literally!) to our devices can seem impossible.
A 2012 survey by the Center for Creative Leadership found that 60% of smart-phone using professionals kept in touch with work for 13.5 hours a day, and another 5 hours on email during each weekend, totaling a workweek of 72 hours. Another survey carried out by Good Technology, a mobile-software company interviewed 1,000 workers. They found that 68% routinely checked email before 8:00AM. 50% checked email while in bed, and 38% checked while at the dinner table. The American Psychological Association reports that 44% of working adults check work email daily while on vacation. One in ten of them check hourly.
Since other workers are spending time from supposedly off hours, tending to communication from their bosses and colleagues, many people take it for granted that such intrusions are simply a normal part of work. In an effort to normalize the encroachment of work onto our personal lives, many of us rationalize that this provides us with more flexibility in the workday. Yet the research done by Center for Creative Leadership found that those workers who did not own a smart phone attended to personal tasks during workday hours with the same frequency as those who are checking their messages throughout the day.
It may appear that employers and supervisors are exploiting and stealing time from their employees and that their employees are letting them. But according to the Pew Research group, everyone, including higher-level executives are not spared.
Workplace research has found some organizations that have challenged the prevailing view that “full-time” means 24/7 availability. These studies are showing that formerly burned out and overly stressed employees can recover from “toxic work syndrome” without diminishing the company’s productivity level, provided the organization creates and continues to enforce policies that are more limited in their expectations of their employees availability. CEO David Morken at Bandwith, a tech company with 300 employees has found that once the work/family ratio is in balance, those working in his organization become more relaxed, creative, and productive on the job. The workers report that they experience higher levels of both work and life satisfaction.
While Bandwith may be a relatively small organization, pioneering the way to a more humanized business sector. It isn’t necessary to wait until your workplace institutes changes in it’s policies and expectations to free yourself from the tyranny of the enslavement to technology that is so endemic in our culture. Here are some steps that you can take right now!
- Tell the truth. Be honest with yourself about how you feel about the degree to which electronic devices impact on your quality of life experience. If you don’t feel that it’s a problem, then don’t bother reading any further. If you do, admit it and acknowledge what you are afraid might happen if you were to cut back on your use of electronics. Explore these beliefs to see if they are actually true.
- Don’t hesitate; negotiate! You may be assuming that your supervisor or manager will judge you negatively or that your job may be put in jeopardy if you seek to draw boundaries that you allow you to have some time that you are not expected to be available. This could, for example include vacations, early mornings, specific holidays, etc. Take your request to those in positions of authority to find out where the real parameters are about what is expected of you. You may be able to negotiate agreements that work for you and the orgaization.
- Make some places off-limits for electronic devices. This guideline has to do with a place where you have the power to directly influence your personal environment: your home. If you find the use of electronics disruptive for certain locations or events (like meals, intimate conversations, family gatherings or meetings) create a “device-free zone or time”. There may be some resistance to the implementation of such a policy, but that needn’t be deal-breaker if you handle negative responses with respect, patience, flexibility, and openness to others’ concerns.
- Announce your unavailability. Inform those persons in your life with whom you share an expectation of 24/7 availability, that you may not always be there to pick up the phone or instantaneously respond to their voicemail or text. Let them know what your intention is in doing this and reassure them that you’re not just “doing it to them” but that you’re trying to make a general change in your life and giving this message to others as well. Remind them that this policy works both ways and that you no longer hold them to an instantaneous response in non-urgent matters.
- Plan and spend more face-to-face time with friends. Direct contact with friends and loved ones is considerably more satisfying than spending on-line line time with them. True, it is less convenient and can be very difficult if the distance between you is great, but the difference that truly quality time with another can make in our lives can be profound and long lasting even if the visits are infrequent or short in duration. Don’t wait until you need something from someone to connect with them; do it when you have something to give them. Do it now!
- Be an example to others. There aren’t a lot of examples out there of people who are accepting the challenge of creating tech-free zones in their lives and consequently, this doesn’t even show up as an option to others. By declaring this intention you are illuminating a possibility that could be life-changing for others as well as yourself. Consider the possibilities!
- Be resourceful. Get involved with other activities that you find pleasurable, entertaining, fun, enlightening, or provide any other kind of experience that appeals to you as much or more than the attraction of electronics.
- Don’t settle for contact; go for connection! Much of what motivates us to go on-line has to do with a desire for personal contact. While there’s nothing wrong with making contact with others through electronic media, contact alone isn’t sufficient to fulfill our need for meaningful connection. No matter how much contact we’re making with others, it’s not going to satisfy this need unless we also have an adequate amount of deeper connection in our lives. Give yourself and your friends the gift of enhancing your relationships with the kind of connection that really satisfies!
Transforming a technology compulsion to an option is no easy feat in an on-line world where the expectation for many is continual connection and instantaneous response. The good news, however, is that it is possible to loosen the grip of social “norms” and become free to manage our personal and work-related relationships in ways that are life enhancing, rather than life-numbing. Others are doing it and so can you!