After racking up over a billion views and producing nearly four hundred videos, YouTube’s original beauty star Michelle Phan shocked her fans and followers in 2015 by leaving the platform. The reason? Her rise to top influencer status had come at a big cost: Phan was burned out and needed a break. “I like to make this comparison that being a YouTuber is like being an Uber driver, and your car is your channel,” she tells Thrive. “Uber drivers are not going to make money unless they’re driving that car. Essentially, that’s the same as a YouTuber. You have to make content on a pretty consistent daily basis because people in the audience, they love seeing new content every week, or every day. That’s why the burnout rate is so high.”
So after ten years of pushing hard on the gas pedal, Phan took a two-year YouTube hiatus. The very devices that fueled her livelihood eventually delivered the warning signs that something was amiss. “You know you have a problem when you hear your phone vibrate and you start feeling stressed out. That’s when you realize, ‘Okay, I have a problem,’” Phan recalls. “I was tired, I wasn’t creating anything I was proud of, and that was why I took a break . . . to take a few steps back and reflect.”
Phan’s story represents a problem that many of us—across every industry—also face: an inability to find our “off” switch. Even if we know how important it is to regularly unplug from technology and recharge our own batteries, the architecture of our modern lives doesn’t make it easy. We love our phones, our screens, our devices and what they allow us to do. We value the convenience and connection they’ve brought to modern life. But having the world at our fingertips, and in our pockets, has accelerated the pace of our lives unlike ever before. And it’s brought a whole new universe of temptations, notifications, and alerts that often make it seem like we’re living in service of our devices rather than leveraging their tools to make our lives better. If we struggled to set boundaries before, the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the challenge; and if we thought working from home would make it easier to disconnect from email and all the apps that connect us to the stress of our workdays, well, we were wrong.
To understand just how dependent many of us have become on our devices, consider an experiment conducted by researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia. They gave people a choice to be alone in a room, without anything—no devices, no papers, no phones—or get an electric shock. A whopping 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose the electric shock.