The price of being ‘always on’
Some time back I worked with a client who really struggled to stay off her phone. At work, she was distracted by personal messages, social media, and news. At home, while supposedly spending downtime with her partner, she’d find herself constantly checking email and responding to work-related queries. Neither at work nor at home was she fully engaged.
My client harbored anxiety that if she stopped checking her phone for work email around the clock her boss would think she was lazy and it would be the first step toward getting fired. She was so anxious about this happening that, when her boss was on a different time zone, she would check her phone in the middle of the night to “keep on top of things.” At the root of this wasn’t so much concern for the work per se, but my client’s need to be liked, valued, appreciated, and, crucially, depended upon. Her sleep pattern became so erratic (no doubt due to her being regularly on her phone at 3 a.m.) that she could barely get through the day and was taking her exhaustion and frustration out on her partner. She realized that the cost of her always-on work ethic was too high, and she was heading for a crash.
While this client was quite an extreme example, her relationship with her phone wasn’t that abnormal. It’s clear that many of us are paying a high price for our availability. We are everywhere, but nowhere properly. Phone use, digital distraction, and lack of attentiveness —these are perennial topics in my couples work as a relationship therapist. I sometimes wonder if the phone hasn’t replaced the “other woman/man” as the top relationship threat. What’s interesting is that it’s not actually serving us at work either—we may feel like we’re ‘always on’ but the reality is most of us are instead ‘always distracted.’ “Cell phone and texting” was identified as the biggest productivity killer at work by employers in a 2016 CareerBuilder study. The next biggest distraction the research identified was “the internet.”
Co-dependency and your phone
‘Co-dependency’ has become somewhat of a pop psychology buzzword in recent years, one applied to a wide spectrum of relational dysfunction. But at its core, it means putting our own happiness into the hands of others and conversely assuming we are responsible for making those around us happy. What it looks like in practice is letting our boss’s inability to switch off dictate our own working practices or not being able to say no to social invitations when we’re totally exhausted for fear that another person might think ill of us. In short, it’s constantly putting other peoples’ needs ahead of our own, or worse, even denying we have needs of our own.
Smartphones are particularly enabling for fostering these co-dependent dynamics. I work with many clients who have a constant drip feed of requests coming their way via their device, many endowed with a false sense of urgency. They feel unable to lay boundaries down with the result that they feel compelled to check their emails and messages last thing at night and first thing in the morning.
What can you do?
Firstly, set some digital boundaries. Whether it’s having a chat with your boss about what your boundaries are going to be around work phone and device use or with your partner about keeping the phone out of the bedroom, it really helps to speak those words aloud so those who will be impacted by your new relationship with your phone can hear them and in some cases, help hold you accountable.
With regard to work, this is particularly important if your boss is used to having you answer emails at all hours and even on vacation. Let them know you will no longer be “always on” but instead plan to be more present during the actual hours that you are contracted to work.
Many people feel intimidated about having such a frank conversation with their supervisor, particularly if there’s been a strong “always on” work precedent. In such cases, it may be helpful to explain that you want to try a different style of working. Set a trial period, say one month, and suggest you and your boss meet at the end of the month to see what effect the ‘boundaried’ style had on your work. Being proactive and offering to be accountable shows that you’re taking your goal seriously but also want to stay on top of the impact of your deliverables.
The client I referred to above managed to quickly convince her boss of the merits of her new boundaried style of working by becoming more productive during her working day. She relayed how surprised she was that she was actually getting through more rather than less work. Previously, she’d surf the internet or chat with friends on WhatsApp to distract herself from tasks she didn’t want to do, knowing that, ultimately, she could make up the time later, working on her phone, on the train, or on the couch while half-watching TV with her partner. However, when she knew her day would end at 5.30 p.m., she focused more on the task at hand, which not only freed up time for herself later but gave her a sense of accomplishment and completion.
Nevertheless, as time went on, her challenge was not so much her boss insisting she pick up work out of hours but rather that she stick to her own intention.
Many of us have a work ego that’s predicated on beliefs such as “I work all the hours,” “I’m so busy,” “I’m always on my email,” which makes it challenging to put a dent in those beliefs by becoming more boundaried, even if it means a better personal AND work life. Initially, it can feel clunky but by persisting and sticking to our own intention of a more boundaried working style, it can become the new normal over time. Learning that you can have both a successful work and personal life, that it’s literally within your grasp by managing how you use your devices, is a game changer. In the words of Erica Jong – “Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.”
Hilda’s first book, The Phone Addiction Workbook, is now available on Amazon.