Managing your digital world for healthy work-life integration

Don’t be that person ruled by technology

Remote access technology has enabled a great amount of flexibility in our working lives. Without it, we wouldn’t have the luxury of moulding our working hours to more effectively suit our desired working patterns. But rather than utilising technology to enhance our lives, we are increasingly becoming enslaved by the ‘always-on’ culture.

Remember the Kevin Bacon No Brainer advert for EE, with the entire family sat around the table in a cafe glued to their respective devices rather than interacting with each other? An ironic depiction of quality family time. And all too often, the blurred lines between work and personal lives created by remote access technology make it a struggle to be truly present, focused and productive at any given time. We are constantly interrupted by ‘urgent emails’, notifications, alerts, phone calls etc.

In a recent research project I carried out for a communications agency, push email (automatically receiving notifications) and a cultural pressure to respond immediately to clients and colleagues were cited by employees as the factors having the biggest negative impact on wellbeing, focus and productivity. They were effectively spending core working hours just reacting to email and notifications and working longer and longer hours to actually complete the rest of their day job. Burnout risk was considerable and productivity levels low.

What really struck me though was the impact on employees’ sense of worth. How do you feel when you’re in a meeting trying to reach a decision or pitch an idea and people pull out their phone or laptop? Unimportant, undervalued and frustrated at the time wasting is what I mostly hear.

Various studies have cited the negative impact of technology on wellbeing when it’s badly managed;

All in all, when we let technology rule our behaviours, it’s bad news for our wellbeing, annoying (and quite frankly rude) to those around us and unproductive.

Getting your digital world in order

Challenge your assumptions and clarify expectations

What was interesting about the communications agency that I worked with, was that the obligation to always be responsive was more of a perceived cultural pressure rather than official policy. Of course, in the media industry, fast responses are critical but that doesn’t mean all employees had to be responsive all of the time. I supported managers to run team workshops to determine how they could more effectively manage themselves, ensuring that clients would always receive a fast response but allowing each team member to have ‘digital time-outs’ to focus on other work tasks, such as report writing.

More often than not, we make assumptions about how quickly responses are needed without actually testing what the true requirements are. Have a conversation with your colleagues and manager about what is an acceptable response time and where there might be opportunities to switch off notifications to focus on other tasks.

Define your personal rules for technology usage

What are your own personal boundaries for interacting with technology? One of my colleagues actually likes to get a few emails done in the evening but he will absolutely not have his phone anywhere near him when he’s putting his toddler to bed. Bath time and story time receive his undivided attention. Other people have set rules like not using anything with a screen (laptops, phones, TVs) one hour before going to sleep, or switching off work email accounts on their phones the minute they get home.

Role model good email etiquette

  • Do the emails you send out specify what is required of the recipient in the subject line?
  • Do you specify when a response is needed by?
  • Do you use the ‘reply all’ option with careful consideration (just because the original sender cc’d in twenty other people, doesn’t mean they need to be in the loop for the whole email chain)?
  • Is your writing style clear and concise?
  • Do you call the recipient when the email chain starts to drag on to resolve the conversation?

If not, start doing these things and encourage others to do the same. It’ll help to reduce email traffic and enable people to prioritise more effectively.

Set big and small goals to maintain focus

Goal setting is useful for many reasons but in this context, being clear on what you want to achieve will help you prioritise. It’s easy to lose sight of your priorities when you spend your days just reacting to emails and notifications. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be in ‘response’ mode because it’s a handy form of procrastination and a great excuse for avoiding what we should be doing.
Remind yourself of what you want to achieve at work and break those goals down until you have a set of criteria that will help you prioritise your time on a daily basis. Every time you complete a step or sub-goal that’s connected to your bigger goal, your brain will reward you with a hit of dopamine, which will help keep you motivated. Watch Jordan Petersen’s talk on ‘How to Stop Procrastinating’ for more on this topic.

Make your bedroom a technology free zone

It’s called a bedroom for a reason. Show it some respect and keep technology out of there – especially if you are feeling stressed about work. Working on your laptop in bed or checking emails will only build an unconscious association between your bedroom and how you typically feel at work. Whether that’s feeling stressed, excited, motivated or focussed, it won’t help you switch off and get to sleep.

It’s worth investing in a separate alarm clock too – I was doing really well not checking my phone before bedtime until I wanted to set my alarm and before you know, you’re sucked right back in to checking messages! Such a simple change for such a positive result for a good night’s sleep.

Be present to those around you

Whether it’s a work meeting, phone call or a colleague who’s walked over to discuss an issue – focus solely on those around you and engage in active listening. Trying to do more than one thing at the same time will just mean that you do all of the things less effectively than if you focussed on them one at time (and you’ll delay the rewarding dopamine hit for task completion!). If it’s really necessary to be responsive to emails or notifications in a meeting, flag that at the beginning so those leading the meeting can manage it accordingly.

Managing technology and working style preferences are a great topic for within-team and cross-team discussions. When I’ve run these sessions, misunderstandings are unearthed, assumptions are challenged and re-set and productive working patterns are agreed. It’s really rather cathartic for employees who leave knowing that time-wasting, frustration barriers have been openly addressed. Give it a go.

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