Increasingly, we often expect each other to be smartphone-available nearly 24/7. Or we act as if this is the case.
Over time, this can lead to feelings of exhaustion and a sense of entrapment. Time to just focus on our families, our worship, our hobbies, and so on without endless "work" interruption seems to be harder to come by.
And even if it only takes five minutes to read and respond to an email or text, this kind of thing puts us back into "work track" mentally and emotionally. This is particularly true when the electronic interchange engages us in, or reminds us of, some kind of conflict or problem that we have a hard time letting go of. I doubt that I am the only person who has lain awake at night contemplating a helpful response to an email.
June Kim wrote the following in an article in the May 14, 2015 issue of the New York Times: "the Internet and cellphones have created a kind of tyranny of connectedness: Even those who don’t have small children or jobs with the State Department, it seems, now need to be accessible at all hours of the day. It’s as if we’re doctors on call." And this "need" is often illusory. Often, our connectivity isn’t based on true need—theirs or ours. It’s quite simply an addiction.
Moreover, despite the common-place assumption that we need all this connectivity to make us more productive, management experts are increasingly telling us that the opposite is true. Being electronically tethered to work undermines our energy, our motivation, our creativity, our joy, and ultimately, our ability to contribute positively to our workplaces. The bottom line is—it burns us out.
A group of researchers who were collectively involved in about 14 studies of the impact of information technology on work productivity said this in the Winter 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review: "we may be entering an era in which human frailties begin to slow down progress from digital technologies. In a series of studies, we explored the implications of IT-induced technology stress, technology addiction, and IT misuse in the workplace … One implication of our findings is that the very qualities that make IT useful—reliability, portability, user-friendliness, and fast processing—may also be undermining employee productivity, innovation, and well-being."
By all accounts, this "technostress" is on the rise.
We often want to blame the technology itself rather than the way we use it, including our failure to take control of and limit it. The fact is, devices like smartphones can sometimes be extremely helpful and even liberating. It can be great to be able to still get work done despite being stuck for hours in a physician’s waiting room or at the airport. My wife and I have valued, especially when our children were younger, being able to get out on a date knowing that our children can get hold of us when they need to. The technology is not inherently evil. We just use it, too often, in ways that are unwise.
I have begun making small changes, and (at least according to my wife) they have paid big dividends in my mood and energy levels. I now turn my phone off during home fellowship gatherings in our church, unless I honestly need to be available for some clear reason. Increasingly, at night I post a friendly "away" message at about 9:00 p.m., an automatic reply wishing the sender a good night’s sleep and letting him or her know I’ll be in touch next day when I can. On Saturday evening, I post the "happy Lord’s Day" message and keep it going until Monday. I then set the email on my smartphone, during these periods, to only synchronize manually rather than automatically, so I only get messages if I specifically want them. I set up my device to block incoming texts during periods I need to focus on others, with a "knock, knock" work-around senders can use to get through in an emergency. I know people often need to email me during "off hours," if only because if they wait they’ll forget to send me that important message. But that doesn’t mean that I have to reply right away.
Extending the same grace to others is also something I am increasingly conscious of. If I know someone is able and willing to ignore my email until he or she has the time and inclination to respond, I may send it to them in an off-hour just so I won’t forget. But if they can’t let it go, and it really is not an emergency, I try not to send it. Regardless, I am increasingly working at not expecting immediate replies. I don’t want to be tethered to the wonderful people I work with 24/7, and I hope they don’t feel they need to be tethered to me all of the time either.
When I was in Korea a few years ago, a friend drove me and my daughter into the northern mountains, to a small vacation place he kept there. He kept talking about "my tree." Then he spotted it at a distance, a gnarled, windblown evergreen in a patch of sparse vegetation just down from the peak. He hiked us there the next day, to his tree, his special place—where a few times a year, with no electronic distractions, he would sit quietly for hours and just think. And in his head, compose poetry (I have a book of his poems now). A high-powered assistant to a high-powered university president living most of his life in one of the most dense, expensive, frantic cities in the world, sitting under that tree, thinking. It kept him centered, he said. Enabled him to clear his mind. Brought him closer to God.
We all need to find a place where we have our own tree, and it probably does not involve having our smartphones tethered to us.
–Dr. David J. Ayers is Dean of Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College and Fellow for Marriage and Family with The Center for Vision & Values.
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