When trying to establish a good balance between your job and personal life, it’s crucial to sort out your priorities. But prioritizing isn’t easy, especially when you’re already exhausted. Making solid long-term decisions requires time, mental work, and clarity. For people whose work-life balance is out of joint, these are all in short supply. You may feel so overworked that you can’t even start thinking about the changes you want to make.
One way to cut through this tangle is to pinpoint a specific problem and work from there. Cutting back on tech use can be a great starting point.
Our computers, tablets, and smartphones let us stay online all the time. Decreasing the impact that they have on our lives gives us some much-needed thinking time. After we gain control over these devices, it becomes easier to move on to other important changes.
How Our Devices Disrupt Our Balance
There are various ways that digital technology blurs the divide between work and the personal sphere. Two major ones are:
1. They drain our ability to pay attention at work.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center estimated that 77% of US employees use social media at work (Lampe & Ellison 2016). Interestingly, over half of the survey respondents said that social media distracts them from the work they need to do – and at the same time, over half of the respondents said that social media helps them recharge, with some people holding both opinions at the same time.
Taking the occasional break and does actually make us better at our jobs, as nobody can maintain unerring focus 9-to-5. Social media is an obvious choice because – unlike a short walk or a conversation with a coworker – we can still look busy while staring at our computer or phone screen. It also delivers a burst of instant gratification that cheers us up, though the effects aren’t long-lasting (Fuller 2017).
But with too much phone use, we can easily end up losing focus and procrastinating. This leads to a gnawing sense of guilt, and it can also harm our performance and our workplace relationships. We then try to compensate by working weekends or taking on overtime. Avoiding this kind of workplace procrastination lets us gain a better idea of how much work we really do. When assessing our work-life balance, this self-knowledge is extremely valuable.
2. We bring work home every time we check our work email.
The other part of the equation is even more important. All around the world, employees use technology to keep up with work even during their free time. This means checking their emails and notifications after work and during the weekends. A staggering 70% of US workers check in regularly at work while they’re on vacation (TurnKey Survey 2019).
This negatively impacts our ability to pay attention and to rest. Our loved ones may feel neglected, and for good reason. So what can we do to decrease the damage done by checking our smartphones all the time?
How to Do a Digital Detox
Digital detoxes are a way to control one’s social media engagement. The term has been around for a decade and a half, and it exploded in popularity in 2015 (source: Google Trends). Considering that the internet impacts every aspect of life now, learning how to do a detox is more important than ever.
The idea is simple – stop using gadgets for a set amount of time, and stick to the plan no matter what. This can help you shake off the habit of checking your phone even when you don’t mean to, and it also helps put things in perspective. More broadly, the goal of a digital detox is to minimize the influence that your phone and computer have on your day-to-day life.
There are two ways to do a detox, and it’s best to try both if you can.
Option One: Go Cold-Turkey (and Fly South)
What’s the easiest way to stop checking any of your devices? Don’t have them at hand, or turn the internet off.
Many people approach digital detoxes the same they would a traditional detox or even a fast. For a few days or weeks, they completely abstain from the internet, and this usually means that they also take some time off work.
Some stay home and focus on offline hobbies like reading or gardening. Many others take the opportunity to see the world, and there are countless resorts worldwide that specialize in digital detoxes. Choosing a specialized resort is useful for many reasons – notably, you can meet other people who are going through the same process.
This makeshift support network tends to be very helpful, as going cold-turkey isn’t easy. You may find yourself anxious and bored, and it can be difficult to enjoy beautiful sights when there’s no way to take or post photos. However, getting through these initial difficulties is more than worth it, and you’re sure to end your detox feeling refreshed and relaxed.
Option Two: Change Things Gradually
If a full detox isn’t an option for you, here are some of the more gradual methods that you can start implementing right away:
- Before using your phone, stop and ask why.
Sometimes, the best way to break a habit is to stop and think about what you’re doing. When you’re reaching for your phone, what do you want to achieve? Will it be useful, fun, or is it simply something you’re doing to pass the time? It is also a great idea to turn off push notifications, as they hog your attention without giving you much value in return.
- Don’t use your phone and computer in bed.
Tech use at bedtime can disturb the quality of one’s sleep, and it also makes it difficult to stop thinking about work. It’s a good idea to keep your phone out of the bedroom and use an alarm clock to wake up instead. Decide that certain times of the day (and certain parts of the house) are off-limits for phone use – doing so can have a positive effect on the whole family.
- Face your fears.
If you’re anxious without your phone, ask what it is you’re worried about. Scientists say that “the ‘fear of missing out on something important’ (FOMSI) makes it hard for people to turn off their device, to stop notifications or to unsubscribe” (van Velthoven, Powell & Powell 2018). Some people don’t want to be unreachable because they constantly worry about their loved ones, while some feel that staying away from social media will make them look standoffish. Consider the actual consequences of being unreachable and tailor your notifications accordingly – for example, you can decide to take calls only from family members but stay unavailable to everyone else.
What Happens When Organizations Do a Digital Detox?
Unfortunately, not everyone has the option to set their phone aside for a week (or even for a night). Some workplaces expect their employees to be on-call all the time, and the rationale behind this is that it’s the only way to deliver the expected level of client satisfaction. But is there really no other way to achieve maximum performance in a highly competitive field?
The BCG Experiment
Ethnographer Leslie Perlow and her team performed an experiment with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the world’s top management consulting firms (Perlow & Porter 2009). Free time at BCG was both scarce and unpredictable – the consultants never knew when their clients might need them.
After getting permission from the senior partners, Perlow and her research partners introduced a new idea to a BCG team. Every team member was to get one night off a week, regardless of how much work they completed beforehand. The employee whose turn it was had to leave the building and stop checking their phone and email. This was enforced even when there was something urgent and important happening, like on the final night of a major project.
What happened when an employee took a phone-free night off? Their coworkers collaborated and made sure that the work got done anyway. This led to new, innovative solutions that brought significant value to BCG. It didn’t have a negative impact on the company’s performance – in fact, the consultants felt that it improved client satisfaction.
It also created an open, mutually supportive environment where people paid more attention to each other. There was a significant change in morale, and more employees started expressing a desire to keep working with BCG.
Thriving in an Overconnected World
For more information about this experiment and its wider applications, check out the video below:
Perlow offers some fascinating ideas about improving our work-life balance as a group effort. Support from coworkers makes it much easier to put aside one’s phone without worrying about the repercussions.
Get Back in Control
Using the internet has a significant effect on the human brain (Firth et al. 2019), and it impacts us in some positive ways. But there are also negative consequences to being online too often – most notably, the erosion of our ability to focus on one thing for a sustained amount of time. Multitasking can hurt our work-life balance, and it also makes it harder to form and sustain deep and caring relationships.
Disconnecting from our devices isn’t easy, and it may require forward planning or help from the people around us. However, it lets us regain our sense of self and it boosts our creativity and motivation. It can inspire us to spend more time working on our passions or engaging with our community. In the long run, everyone we interact with benefits from our decision to master the ways our devices affect us.
- How a Digital Detox Saved My Career, by Best-Selling Author Nicole Lapin
- How to Prepare for a Digital Detox
- 14 Best Locations for a Digital Detox
- Why Turn Off Push Notifications?
- App Control, Going Gray, and Other Ways to Decrease Screen Time
- How (and Why) to Encourage Your Employees to Do a Digital Detox