I spent the first 27 years of my life largely unplugged and the first 32 years without a cell phone. When I was in college computer science was really taking off, but most other majors were essentially using computers for word processing and some basic library research (though we still used microfiche, too). My early work experiences were manual labor that didn’t require interfacing with screens. Then I joined the Peace Corps where I would call my parents once a month from a pay phone and could pay $1/hr. at an internet café to send e-mails home (I got my first Hotmail account right before leaving for Peace Corps). Upon returning to the U.S., I purposely avoided a cell phone for another 5 years, but then got a job that required me to have one – the modern world had at last pulled me in. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the millennial generation coming up behind the Gen Xers like me have interfaced with computers most of their lives. I often wonder if they long to be unplugged like I often do. I wonder if my desire to disconnect is rooted in a sort of nostalgia for the past.
For me, it is very important to consciously disconnect from my work smart phone that delivers messages 24/7. If you asked my wife, she would probably say there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to my management of technology. I have at times been the guy who obsessively checks his phone, feels the compulsion to respond at all hours, and even experiences a phantom ring/vibration (when you physically think your phone is vibrating when in fact it isn’t). In my professional life, I pride myself on being responsive and for several years I thought that meant responding to every e-mail. It seems that many of us have become conditioned to near-instant response times; instant messaging has further exacerbated the situation. There are times that I have felt truly addicted to checking my phone, as if the phone somehow controls me. Through conversation with my wife, colleagues, and friends, I realized that I needed to become more conscious and intentional in my use of technology and take back control of my phone and my time.
In discussing with various colleagues, we realized that we could collectively agree that after-hours e-mails and responses were not expected regarding routine business. Those of us who need to be available in case of emergencies understand our obligation, but that doesn’t mean that every routine, non-urgent issue needs to be responded to after-hours. We also recognized that sometimes we do want to send after-hours e-mails because we are working a flexible schedule or we have a project we are working on that needs attention outside of regular business hours – that is OK, but we are clear that we don’t therefore expect a response from others right away. I have also learned that my rule about responding to every e-mail is unnecessary and inefficient. Now I try to only respond when my input is required to move a situation forward; I don’t respond just for the sake of responding.
By having conversations about technology management , I felt liberated to pay less attention to my phone after hours. I am still working on finding the sweet spot which for now seems to be setting it aside when I come home and doing one quick evening check and a couple of weekend checks, scanning only for urgent matters. By unplugging while at home, my mind is getting a much needed break from constant input and I feel recharged and ready when returning to work. I’m also able to remember, for a few wonderful hours, what it was like to live in a time before smart phones.
If you feel owned by your phone, have some conversations with your colleagues and establish common expectations; you might be surprised that others feel the same and changes can be made to the benefit of all.