The Danger of Being Too Connected

The connection that comes from technology is often an unfulfilling, ersatz version of connection.

Unfortunately the ever-increasing creep of technology — into our lives, our families, our bedrooms, our brains — makes it much harder to renew ourselves. The average smartphone user checks his or her device every six and a half minutes. That works out to around 150 times a day. Our brains are naturally wired to connect, so it’s not easy to turn away from these kinds of stimuli.

But the connection that comes from technology is often an unfulfilling, ersatz version of connection. Its siren call (or beep, or blinking light) can crowd out the time and energy we have for real human connection. Worse, there is evidence that it can begin to actually rewire our brains to make us less adept at real human connection.

David Roberts, a writer for the environmental online magazine Grist, saw this happening in his own life. “I am burnt the f — out,” he wrote in a memorable goodbye-to-the-Internet-and-his-job-for-a-year letter. So he decided to do something about it: I enjoy sharing zingers with Twitter all day; I enjoy writing long, wonky posts at night. But the lifestyle has its drawbacks. I don’t get enough sleep, ever. I don’t have any hobbies. I’m always at work. . . . I’m never disconnected. It’s doing things to my brain. I think in tweets now. My hands start twitching if I’m away from my phone for more than 30 seconds. I can’t even take a pee now without getting “bored.” I know I’m not the only one tweeting in the bathroom. . . . The online world, which I struggle to remember represents only a tiny, unrepresentative slice of the American public, has become my world. I spend more time there than in the real world.”

He is not alone. A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that the average knowledge economy employee spends 28 percent of his or her time dealing with email — more than eleven hours a week. According to SaneBox, which makes email- filtering software, it takes us sixtyseven seconds to recover from each email that lands in our in- boxes. “At some point,” says SaneBox’s Dmitri Leonov, “we have to understand this process is hurting us.”

Our relationship with email has become increasingly one- sided. We try to empty our in- boxes, bailing like people in a leaky lifeboat, but more and more of it keeps pouring in. How we deal with our email has become a big part of our techno- stress. And it’s not just the never- ending deluge of emails we never get to — the growing pile that just sits there, judging us all day — but even the ones we do get to, the replied- to emails that we think should be making us feel good. Linda Stone worked on emerging technologies at both Apple and Microsoft in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1997, she coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the state of always being partly tuned into everything while never being completely tuned in to anything. Now it feels like a good three- word description of modern life. Ten years later Stone noticed something peculiar happening when she read her email: She would hold her breath for short bursts of time. So she dubbed it “email apnea.” She also conducted a study to see if others experience the same thing. The results? Eighty percent of those she examined were found to have periods of “email apnea.”

It might sound trivial, but it’s not. Disrupting your body’s breathing pattern can knock your body’s balance of oxygen, nitric oxide, and carbon dioxide out of whack, which can, in turn, play a part in exacerbating stress- related conditions.

The simplest tool for avoiding email apnea? To observe your breathing as you deal with your emails — to pull yourself out of automatic pilot. And remember, as Financial Times columnist Tim Harford puts it, “Email is your servant. Corner-office people have secretaries to prevent them from being interrupted. . . . Email will do all this for you too.” His advice: Turn off all notifications; you should control when you want information, not the reverse.

The problem is that with smartphones, email is no longer confined to the office. It comes with us — to the gym, to dinner, to bed. But there are more and more ingenious ways to fight back. Like the “phone stacking” game when friends meet for dinner — they put their phones in a stack in the middle of the table and the first one who checks his device before the bill comes has to pick up the check. Kimberly Brooks, HuffPost’s founding arts editor, plays another game at dinner — the “don’t take a picture of your meal” game. “Unless you’re an on- call doctor or food professional,” she says, “pulling out your cell phone during a meal with family, co-workers, friends, and especially kids, at home or a restaurant, pierces the sanctity of mealtime or, as I like to think of it, the invisible- ceremonial- dome under- which- humankind- forges- civilization.” She wants to add inappropriate phone- checking to the standard list of etiquette no-nos: “I seriously look forward to the day when the widely accepted practice of having phones anywhere near meals, never mind taking pictures, is looked upon as repugnant as picking one’s nose, scratching one’s balls, or chain smoking in public.”

The editor of Scene magazine Peter Davis recounted a dinner party in which the host offered to check the guests’ smartphones at the door. Perhaps smartphones at a party should be treated like coats, usually taken to a back room or otherwise stowed away until guests are ready to leave — a signal, like taking off your coat, that you’re happy to be here and you’re going to stay awhile.

Leslie Perlow, professor at Harvard Business School, introduced something called predictable time off (PTO), in which you take a planned night off — no email, no work, no smartphone. At one company that tried it, the Boston Consulting Group, productivity went up, and it’s now a company- wide program. And after noticing that engineers at a software company were tired and harried from working all- nighters and weekends, Perlow came up with “quiet time,” set periods in which employees agree to let one another work unfettered.

Given that we multitask now for most of our days, if not our lives, unfettered work and play — unitasking — is something that has to be scheduled.

A study by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and the U.S. Army found that avoiding your inbox — taking an “email vacation” — reduces stress and allows you to focus more. It can have an even bigger effect when an entire company decides to take an email vacation. That’s what Shayne Hughes, CEO of Learning as Leadership, decided to do in 2013, sending out an announcement that “all internal e- mail is forbidden for the next week.” Employees were skeptical, but he says the results were unequivocal. “Our high- octane, stay- on- top- of- whatever- is- happening- via- e- mail mentality disappeared,” he wrote in Forbes. “In its place we experienced a more focused and productive energy. . . . The decrease in stress from one day to the next was palpable. So was our increase in productivity.” The experience, he concluded, “reconnected us with the neglected power of human interaction.” Volkswagen has a special policy for employees who are provided with a smartphone and aren’t part of management: The phone is programmed to switch off work emails automatically from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. so that the employees can take care of themselves and their families without feeling they have to stay plugged in to work. FullContact, a Denver software company, gives employees a $7,500 bonus if they follow three rules: “1. You have to go on vacation, or you don’t get the money. 2. You must disconnect. 3. You can’t work while on vacation.”

Paradoxically, one of the biggest growth sectors for tools to help us deal with technology is . . . technology. The fi rst stages of the Internet were about data and more data. But now we have plenty of data — indeed, we’re drowning in it — and all the distraction we could ever hope for. Technology has been very good at giving us what we want, but not always what we need. So now, many in the tech world have realized there’s a growth opportunity for applications and tools that help us focus and filter all that data and distraction. I have collected some of my favorites in Appendix A at the end of the book.

The good news, as immunologist Esther Sternberg explained, is that “you don’t need to go offline — I mean, offline, off your brain’s line — for very long to reset things. . . . if you feel your stress level mounting, you just turn away and look at the trees and listen to the birds and be quiet for a few moments. You can bring it down.”

Going offline can often become harder and harder as you advance up the career ladder. Increased power also brings with it the danger of losing the very qualities that are most essential to leadership. One study found that increased power lowers an executive’s ability to be empathic. Another study on leadership and perspective found that power makes us “prone to dismiss” or misunderstand others’ viewpoints. And relying increasingly on non- empathy building electronic communications would only seem to exacerbate these tendencies. So any tool that can increase our self- awareness and ability to listen and be in the moment is invaluable.

Excerpt from Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder pp. 62–67


Image courtesy of Sandis Helvigs/Unsplash.