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How Technology is Overwhelming Our Lives and What You Can Do About It

The science behind our digital overload and the proven solutions to improve how you work and live.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

How often do you find yourself checking your work email after hours or on weekends? Do you ever find it hard to completely focus on long work projects without being distracted? And when’s the last time you had a meeting or a meal where no one checked their phone? If you’re like most people in today’s connected world, you’re probably feeling pressured by the overwhelming presence of technology in our lives.

Though email, social media, text messaging and other forms of instant communication are relatively new to the modern workplace, it’s undeniable that we’re increasingly addicted to our devices. And that addiction is costing us. We’re more stressed, harried and distracted than ever–but it doesn’t have to be this way.

In fact, the latest research shows that a crucial element of success in today’s world is establishing clear boundaries with technology. And while figuring out when and how to disconnect may feel challenging, it’s both easier and more necessary than you might think.

Welcome to The Thrive Guide to Setting Boundaries with Technology.

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you exactly how to create boundaries with the technology you use every day so you can connect more meaningfully with others and create the time and space you need to be more creative and productive.

We use technology in every part of our lives, and it allows us to do amazing things. So going off the grid isn’t realistic. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a healthy relationship with technology that allows us to get the most out of it, without letting it limit our well-being or performance. So we’ll outline how to take a mindful and practical approach to your devices, identifying areas where you’d benefit by cutting back and better-managing aspects that can easily get out of hand, like email. Thrive Global is centered around Microsteps — small, science-backed changes you can immediately incorporate into your daily life that will have a big impact. 

Thrive Guides also feature New Role Models we can look to for inspiration on setting better boundaries and succeeding without burning out. In this case, we’ll be looking at business leaders like Levi Strauss & Co. President and CEO, Chip Bergh, and Bain & Company Chairman, Orit Gadiesh, who are both setting strong examples of disconnecting from technology, proving that you don’t have to be plugged-in 24/7 in order to be successful.

Gadiesh makes a point to unplug at bedtime, telling Thrive that her phone never sleeps with her, while Bergh extends his phone boundaries into the the workday. “I check regularly but I am purposely not on email all day. If I have an urgent question, I’ll call or text,” he told Thrive. “And when I’m in meetings — and that’s most of my work day — I make an effort to be present and not multitask.”

Since we can’t simply stop using technology, what we need is smarter and better technology. And many in the technology world, realizing that we’re overly plugged-in, are answering the call for technology that helps us set boundaries. In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ll walk you through the apps and products that can help you make better decisions about when to unplug both inside and outside of work.

And while making these changes yourself is important, if you oversee a team, it’s even more critical to help them on their journey. The Managerial Take-aways section offers advice for managers who want to lead by example and help their direct reports follow through on their disconnecting goals. It will be a win for you, your team, and your company.

So if we haven’t convinced you yet, let’s dive into the science. But don’t worry, it’s not complicated! This guide will give you the tools, the data and the motivation you need to start creating healthier boundaries with technology today. Let’s start with what your life probably looks like right now…

A Day in the Life of an Over-Connected Employee

The most obvious manifestation of the problem in the workplace is the inevitable: email. In a 2016 survey by Adobe, American workers reported spending an average of 4.1 hours per day checking their work email and another 3.3 hours checking their personal email. European office workers reported spending more than one-third of their waking hours managing work and personal email.

Phone calls, texts and communication platforms like Slack, Yammer and IM can be major distractions, too. Research from the University of California, Irvine, found that the average office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes by emails, phone calls, and more. And it takes longer than 20 minutes to get back into a groove after we’re interrupted. That math makes completing the task at hand with any efficiency nearly impossible.

Constantly toggling between your inbox, your phone and the many open tabs on your browser also makes you less productive. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who try to absorb information from several digital sources at the same time perform worse than people who take it one task at a time. Lead author and Stanford University communications professor Clifford Nass referred to the media multitaskers in the study as “suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

Once the workday is done, you put your phone and computer away, right? If you’re like most people, probably not. In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 86 percent of people surveyed reported checking email, texts and social media “constantly” or “often.” Add that to the 79 percent of respondents in Adobe’s European survey who said they check their work email outside of office hours and the 71 percent of Americans who reported sleeping with or next to their smartphones in a 2015 survey.

And yes, we know this isn’t good for us. In the same APA survey, 65 percent of people somewhat or strongly agreed that unplugging is important for their health. The problem? Only 28 percent of those people put that into practice and unplugged regularly.

How Too Much Tech Affects You and Your Relationships

Even if you don’t realize it, you’re probably feeling the effects of being too plugged in, starting with your stress levels. The people who reported the highest stress levels in the APA survey were those who constantly checked their phones even on their days off. Constant checkers were also significantly more worried about what their non-stop connection to technology was doing to their well-being, with 42 percent of them reporting it as a concern.

When you’re constantly online, your brain can’t do its best work. Letting your mind wander lets your creativity flow, according to a 2015 Annual Review of Psychology report. Let’s not forget “Aha moments,” those thoughts, solutions and insights that come to us, seemingly out of the blue (and often in the shower), when our minds are allowed to drift. Research from the University of Amsterdamfound that during seemingly mindless tasks, the default mode network (a circuit within our brain that’s activated when we’re at rest) may be evaluating information at a subconscious level, solving problems we don’t even realize we’re working on. So those eureka moments — big breakthrough ideas or just the most common sense solutions to our everyday problems — need downtime to develop.

There are physical consequences of over-connection as well. Research shows that the blue light emitted by smartphones affects our sleep by suppressing the release of melatonin, the hormone that tells our bodies it’s time to go to bed. Think of it this way: we wouldn’t drink a cup of coffee at 9 p.m. because we know we’d be awake all night. But we don’t hesitate to reach for our phones right before bed. A poor night’s sleep can lead to a rough day at work, as research published in the journal Sleepin 2015 shows that sleep deprivation impairs our ability to make smart decisions.

This inability to disconnect can even affect those around us who aren’t connected. The writer Mark Manson compares it to second-hand smoke. “It’s attention pollution,” writes Manson, “when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them.”

Managers should take particular note of how they interact with phones in front of their direct reports: a 2017 study in Computers in Human Behavior found that when bosses ignore or interrupt employees to answer emails or calls, it lowers employees’ trust in them, which negatively impacts employees’ performance. There’s even a term for this bad boss behavior: BPhubbing.

So now let’s put this advice into action.

Commit to Making Changes Right Now

The first step to creating a healthier relationship with technology is acknowledging that your current relationship could use some improvement and committing to the microsteps.

  1. Put your phone down and look up!

    It’s rare to see anybody simply walking down the street who’s not also staring at a screen, talking on the phone, or, even worse, texting while walking. As the poet Mary Oliver put it: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it.”

  2. Turn off all your notifications, except those from people who might need to get your attention.

    The more our phone buzzes at us, the more it conditions us to release cortisol, “the stress hormone.” Adjust your settings so that you get notifications only from people important to you. 

  3. Do an audit of your phone’s home screen to reduce time-sapping distractions.

    Take just a few minutes to determine which apps you really need to access. Keep only “tools” that add value – not apps designed to consume more of your attention.

These seemingly small changes can not only make a big difference, they can help you see the benefits of disconnecting and motivate you to set more healthy boundaries with technology in the future. Your whole life will be better for it.

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