Technology was supposed to free us from the shackles of our day jobs. Having emails on our phones was meant to make it easier to work from anywhere, so we didn’t have to spend late nights in the office or take a day off to go to the doctor's. Grasping some semblance of work-life balance – that was the plan. But new research suggests that, rather than freeing us up, technology is making us feel guilty about everything.
Surveying 3,500 professionals, MobileIron identified a group of people it’s calling “Gen M” – generation mobile. You’re in Gen M if you’ve got a smartphone that you use for work and as a personal device – the research suggests that is mainly men aged 18 to 34 and anyone with a child aged under 18, but I’d argue that it’s pretty much anyone with an office job. Finding that 61 per cent of us feel guilty checking our work emails at home isn’t all that surprising, but 58 per cent of us also feel guilty checking our personal emails at work. Instead of making us feel freer, we just feel bad all the time? Something’s gone wrong.
So some people are ditching their smartphones altogether. When Anna Wintour and Rihanna were photographed rocking flip phones last year, a flurry of thinkpieces were spawned. The coolest girl you know probably has a flip phone, they said. Millennials don’t want iPhones anymore, they said. Anna Wintour may have an Apple Watch now, but that hasn’t completely killed the trend; there are services dedicated to helping you with a “digital detox” and, even in the business world, people are starting to wonder if non-stop connectivity is really a good thing.
Dr Larry Rosen, a psychologist who specialises in the effects of technology, says that phone addiction is a real thing – but when it comes to our emails, the compulsion to keep checking in comes from anxiety, rather than the warm fuzzies we get from a Facebook like. “We’re finding that it’s not all that pleasurable for many people,” he said. “In fact, their constant checking-in behaviour is an attempt to reduce anxiety and not miss something we perceive as important.”
If you’re going to a dinner or event, put your phone on Airplane mode so you can’t just glance at it and get sucked into your inbox
Those people who have taken the plunge and dumbed their phones down are passionate about their new way of life. Dan Light, who co-runs interactive marketing agency Glass Eye, switched from a top-end HTC to a Samsung flip phone about 18-months ago. “We were working on a project with a client who was based in LA for two or three months and I’d find myself being woken in the middle of the night by emails that I’d read and respond to impulsively,” he told us. “I’d be checking my emails before I even got out of bed. It felt like I was on a string being yanked around.”
The idea of untethering from your smartphone sounds daunting. You’d expect a few withdrawal symptoms, but Dan was surprised at how easy it was. “My business partner thought it was absurd that I’d be co-running a digital company and not have access to email at all times, but the human benefits are so important. The thing that I’m most positive about is the way that it’s improved my relationship with my children and my wife. It’s paid off for the people who matter most.”
Not everyone - in fact hardly anyone - wants to switch off completely and go back to their phone being just a phone, so how do we find the middle ground? Forty-two per cent of the people surveyed said they now plan to get a smartwatch, at which point those of us addicted to our inboxes are going to have an even harder time switching off.
Dr Rosen recommends setting yourself some parameters. “Check into a fixed schedule and alert your office that that is your choice,” he said. “It sets a bad precedent if you just assume that you need to be available all the time.”
There are ways you can force yourself to switch off, too: most smartphones now have a Do Not Disturb function, so you won’t get calls or email alerts between set times – why not set them a little earlier than bedtime? If you’re going to a dinner or event, put your phone on Airplane mode, so you can’t just glance at it and get sucked into your inbox. Your phone comes with all these bells and whistles – take a stand and use them. It might help you alleviate some of that guilt.