Does this feel familiar to you? Do you feel like a constant slave to Father Time? Have you ever cursed out the TVA for allowing time to pass you by without punishment?
…Weren’t you just focused on something else a moment ago, fellow traveler?
Fret not; whatever you’re feeling, others are, too. Come; swirl in the void with me for a moment and contemplate this construct.
The Time Wormhole
What even is time anymore, anyway? Personal time has become work time. Downtime has become distraction time. Time for sleep has been replaced with any of the aforementioned. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” has become a common phrase in my sharp, half-joking vernacular. It’s not just you, and it’s not just me. Work-life balance has become seemingly passé in the twenty-first century, and alarmingly so in our work from home culture. We’ve come to embody a state of being that’s referred to as “always on”. We’ve become something I’d like to call Sapien Solaris: The 24-Hour Human.
“Always on” is a notion of always being alert, receptive, and connected to one’s corporate duties at all times. It’s essentially the same as being on-call; you’ve always got your job on the back of your mind, even when you’re not working. You’re just waiting for the phone to ring, for a message to come in. Whether it happens or not is besides the point — you’ve become unable to “turn off” your job headspace and compartmentalize it to scheduled hours in the day.
And we’re part of the problem. Yes, I understand the anxiety of needing job security — it’s what we use as justification for answering those non-urgent Slack messages or texts sent by coworkers or directors after hours. We need to be reliable. We need to show we can pull our weight. The issue at hand is that culture, that mentality of being always reachable, has become expected. We have allowed it to happen, which enables it to continue happening, and this unfortunate reality has been perpetuated by the very thing we utilize for both work and leisure: technology. Emily Westbrooks, a blog author for the project management service provider Wrike, cites a study published by Florida State University in her blog post:
“Advances in communications technology, including mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops, have allowed organizations to remain constantly connected to their employees both during and after work hours.”
— Steffensen, McAllister, Brooks, Perrewé, Not at the Table
Ah, yes; technology. A blessing. A curse. We have become “blursed”, one might say, by this overlord of wire and electricity. It connects us all together, interweaving our lives more tightly than the concept of “pen pals” could ever even dream to achieve. It makes collaboration a breeze, discussion and conversation just keystrokes and clicks away.
And yet, in the same vein, this exact technology is what’s blurring the line between work-life separation. Emails, personal and business, now sit in your pocket. Communication apps — like Slack or Teams — keep you and your coworkers connected at all times. In fact, some of these coworkers may have your personal number now (and you theirs) as another method of reaching you while everyone practices social distancing and self-isolation. Further and fewer between, I bet, exercise restraint in keeping work talk out of your personal messages. What about team members with different hours than you? Different timezones?
The Time Keepers
Being ceaselessly alert and constantly reactive is draining in all aspects, but where does it end? When you go to sleep? (Here I’m scoffing. Have you ever had a dream about work? Because I sure have, and it’s not pleasant.) Just because you power down for the night, doesn’t mean others have. What happens if you wake up to a text from your boss? An email from your director? Do you panic? Does your heart race? Didn’t I just do this all yesterday?
This is where my idea of Sapien Solaris comes in — being “always on” makes a 24-hour day (a solar day — get it? Solar day? Solaris?) feel like a blur. One day becomes two. Two becomes five. You struggle to remember if you completed a task a few days ago or a week ago. I recently had a coworker come to me about something we’d figured out previously (he needed a tweak), and I asked him to send me a screenshot of whatever I had done so I could jog my memory. I had no recollection of the outcome, only that I struggled to come to it. (Don’t even ask me if it was a month ago or three; I couldn’t even tell you that at this point, either.) This is due to the fact that I am “always on”, but it would be remiss of me to not mention that it’s also due to the nature of my job (which I’ve made mention of in my previous blog post). I’m always reacting, always working. Each day of my life feels like a full, 24-hour cycle. I’m doing my best to chug along, to produce, to contribute.
And then I start to panic if I haven’t checked one of my many communication apps in a while. This is another issue that causes the cycle to become a spiral.
The End-All, Be-All
One of the other reasons technology has enabled this diminishing of work-life balance is due to our connection to our phones. Ahem. Our attachment, I should say. As technology and communication have advanced, each iteration of software and operating systems has become increasingly fine-tuned and adjusted to better grab our attention. Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, likens this attention-grabbing to playing a slot machine.
“What did I get?”, he asks in his 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, articulating the anxious feeling of uncertainty when checking one’s phone. “This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit”. This habit is formed from a positive feedback loop, similar to the concept of a slot machine — you pull a lever, you get a reward, you get excited. “And it turns out,” Harris explains, “that this design technique can be embedded inside all of these products” (products meaning phones, apps, and social media).
In talking about all the big tech organizations (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple), Franklin Foer (author of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech”) warns that “these companies are in a race to become our ‘personal assistant.’ They want to wake us in the morning, have their artificial intelligence software guide us through our days and never quite leave our sides”.
Gabe Zichermann, expert in the concept of “gamifaction”, explained to Anderson Cooper that “corporations and creators of content have, since the beginning of time, wanted to make their content as engaging as possible”.
What I’m getting at here with all these quotes is another type of positive feedback loop present in the same overall setting. We, the consumers, check our phones (“pull a lever”), see a notification of some sort (“get a reward”), and that makes us excited. Corporations take that data, see what gets our attention and what we engage with, and cater (or pander, as I’ve seen used in Foer’s adapted article) to it. It’s all one giant positive feedback loop of dependence cultivation, and we’re spiraling down into the void of addiction.
During the aforementioned 60 Minutes interview, Anderson Cooper participated in an experiment conducted by professor Nancy Cheever that demystifies and substantiates the neurological dependence (read: addiction) we have on our smart devices.
Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos mention in their study that humans react to things that are “habitually relevant” to them. Their study — research on how the presence and absence of smartphones affects one’s cognitive abilities — yielded results that suggested smartphones are coded in our brain as being “habitually relevant”.
Psychologist Larry Rosen (a research colleague of Prof. Cheever) also performs research on technology’s affect on the brain. He explained to the 60 Minutes team that “when you put your phone down, your brain signals your adrenal gland to product a burst of . . . cortisol”.
Given this coding of being “habitually relevant”, our brains have now been rewired to release cortisol (a hormone that signals a fight-or-flight response to danger) in response to our phones going off — or simply being near us and unattended.
Prof. Cheever hooked Cooper up to a monitor (electrodes applied to the fingers) that tracked his heart rate and perspiration while he watched a video. Meanwhile, she sent texts to his phone — which was nearby, but out of reach. Every time Cooper’s phone went off, his readings spiked in response to his anxiety, which was caused (in part) by a release of cortisol. Cortisol that was produced in response to a need to tend to our phones when they go off.
It doesn’t matter if we have the phone in our hands or not; it always seems to trigger the same response.
The Never-Ending Cycle
Your phone goes off. Oh! A notification! Hooray! You claw for your phone, your anxiety spiking as you desperately wonder what (or who) it is. Then you realize it’s work-related. It’s after hours, you think to yourself while absentmindedly unlocking your phone anyway. Why didn’t they just ask me this tomorrow? Why couldn’t this have waited until the morning, you groan as you type a reply. Send. Ugh. Now let the anxiety settle back in as you await a response.
A self-fulfilling prophecy. A never-ending cycle. We allow work to interrupt personal time, which then leads to the vanishing of personal time. We morph into human lightbulbs: always burning, always buzzing with activity. We become forever connected to work: “always on”, always reactive. We become Sapien Solaris; “always on”, our minds donning a figurative “Open 24 Hours” sign.
And through it all, our dependence on our phones keeps us spiraling down into this madness. We yearn for notifications, for a dose of dopamine. Your phone’s sitting quiet, just out of reach? Panic. What if you have a like or comment you didn’t notice? What if you missed that response from your coworker you’ve been waiting on? So you pick it up and check it, just to be sure. Just so you can calm that burst of cortisol. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing or something; the cycle will result (and then repeat) in either of two predictable outcomes — both of which result in you picking up your phone yet again.
“Time doesn’t exist, clocks exist. Time is just an agreed upon construct.”
— David J. Conway
So how do we stop this vicious cycle? Well, a good first step is admitting there’s a problem. That’s always a great place to start: acknowledging something’s existence. I’m too attached to my phone. I shouldn’t be checking notifications for work after hours. I need to stop sending work-related questions to my coworkers via their cell numbers. Whatever the issue may be, admit to yourself that there is one. Make it permissible, so long that you promise to make an effort to be better about it. At the end of her blog post, Westbrooks mentions small changes you can implement to fight the “always on” mentality and state of being. While relatively minute and accessible to all, some may suit you better than others — given your situation.
You can see that I’ve added an * to Tip 04. This requires diligence, and it also requires you to be in a position that isn’t considered “on-call”. Ignoring messages is hard. Ignoring your phone is hard. It’s been presented through research that we have become neurologically dependent and reliant on our phones, so I think this tip goes hand-in-hand with Tip 05 — practicing self-regulation.
Separate those work and life tasks from one another. Do it!
Still working from home? Do better than me and try and dedicate a separate office space for your actual job work and your leisure work. (I sit at the same desk in the same room for both work and pleasure. It’s easier, given my desktop/monitor setup, but sometimes I wonder if it’s me hindering more than helping…)
Be diligent about when and why you message coworkers. Stop checking work notifications after hours. Turn them off altogether. Devolve from this negative ascension of the Sapien Solaris, and learn to turn yourself off for a while.
That, or let me know when you start to dream of electric sheep. Then we’ll need to have another, entirely different conversation.