The Digital Brain Switch is a research project that brought together researchers from a number of universities to focus on how digital technologies affect our work-life balance. They have produced a number of short videos including a video on work – life boundaries in the digital age, and one on the implications of a digital life. Worth a look, especially if you are interested in research and digital technology.
This week I have been pondering on the fate of Sir Tim Hunt, scientist, Nobel Prize winner for his work on cell division and fellow of the Royal Society. Speaking ‘off the cuff’ at a conference in South Korea, Hunt made ill advised and silly comments suggesting that the trouble with “girls” in science is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when criticised. Although Hunt apologised for his comments (suggesting they were meant to be ironic and jocular) they were picked up on social media and went viral resulting in the 72 year old being forced to resign from his honorary post at University College London. A number of senior female scientists have come forward to say that Hunt’s comments didn’t reflect his practice and that he had in the past shown great support to young scientists, both male and female.
What struck me about this story was how fragile our reputations are. An ill-advised word or action can quickly take a momentum of its own, impacting on both our personal lives and our careers. There are some great examples of social media holding people to account for their actions – see for example the coverage of police brutality in America – but how can years of exemplary and highly valued work be brushed aside as the result of 5 minutes of arrogant hubris on the other side of the world? Surely we are all allowed to make mistakes, to acknowledge and apologise for those mistakes and move on?
Technology and social media really do mean that the world has shrunk – that ill-advised words or actions can be captured, replayed, commented on and magnified. Reputations can be shattered, professional personas destroyed: a hurricane of comments doing their damage and then moving on to the next victim. Gossip on an international scale. How do we protect ourselves from that? I know the rubbish that comes out of my mouth sometimes – I am tired, I have miss-judged a situation, I have spoken without thinking – I would be mortified if those lapses had been captured and played out to the world. But I don’t want to lead a bland, un-opinionated, silent life, where thoughts are left un-verbalised and ideas unexplored. I want permission to make an arse of myself – to learn from that – and to move on – without leaving my reputation and my life’s work in its wake.
I love technology. I love the convenience and the sense of connectedness it brings to my life. I am back at university. Every 10 years of so I seem to feel the need to go back to my books, and when I look at my 3 experiences of studying the differences are huge. The main research skill now isn’t finding relevant literature it is wading through the plethora of studies that are out there and quickly assessing the quality and relevance of each one. I can set up RSS feeds and apps so that new papers are delivered directly to my desktop, and I can ‘follow’ my favourite researchers so that I am one of the first to know when they have published new research (this is the equivalent of a pop star crush for the middle aged) – but the danger is that you become overwhelmed by the avalanche of information, to such an extent you become paralysed by it and overawed by the sense that you will never finish reading all the relevant papers. Well, maybe that is just me after a hard week of study. However fabulous and liberating technology is it also has its dark side – there is a need for you to be in control of it and to make it work for you.
One of the impacts of technology that I think we underestimate is the impact on our relationships. To what extent does the ease of communication replace meaningful interactions with superficial pleasantries? It is great ‘liking’ a friend’s comment on Facebook or sending a quick text of support to someone you know is having a tough time – but there is a real danger that we believe that this is enough – and we forget to pick up the phone or arrange to meet for a coffee and a chat. To what extent can we really engage with someone’s life if that engagement is mediated by technology?
One of the other impacts of technology on relationships is the very presence of your smart phone or your tablet on the people around you. Research has shown that having a mobile phone visible when you are having a conversation with someone causes them to feel less positive towards you and can reduce feelings of trust and closeness – even when the phone is on another table and when they don’t remember the phone being there. Look around the restaurant, pub or café next time you go out. How many people not only have their phones visible but are also using them in front of their family and friends? Next time you are at home with your partner of family think about how often you are checking your phone, or looking at Facebook on your tablet. One of the things that Mindfulness teaches us is to bring ourselves fully into the present – practice this by hiding your technology and focusing on the people that you are with. And next time you ‘like’ a friend’s comment – think about the last time you had a proper conversation with them – maybe it is time to reconnect in the real world and add some richness to your relationships.
1. Do you regularly use a mobile phone and spend considerable time on it?
2. Do you have one or more devices and always carry a charger?
3. Do you feel anxious or nervous at the thought of losing your handset or when you can’t use your phone because it has been misplaced, doesn’t have coverage, has a flattened battery or lack of credit?
4. Do you avoid as much as possible places and situations in which you cannot use your mobile phone?
5. Do you constantly look at your phone’s screen to see whether messages or calls have been received?
6. Do you keep your mobile phone switched on 24 hours a day, and sleep with it next to you?
7. Do you prefer to communicate using technology rather than face-to-face?
8. Do you incur debt or great expense from using your mobile phone?
I defy most of us to not answer positively to many of those questions, suggesting that we are suffering from nomophobia.
Nomophobia (named by conflating ‘no mobile’ and ‘phobia’) describes discomfort, anxiety, nervousness or anguish caused by being out of contact with a mobile phone or computer – it is the fear of remaining out of touch with technology.
According to a 2008 survey by the post office more than 13 million British people are suffering from it, which is about 53% of mobile phone users.
Academics are making the argument for the inclusion of nomophobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is currently in its fifth version and is the standard classification of mental disorders in the United States and influential around the world.
But does this really describe a new psychiatric disorder, or does it describe for many of us the reality of living and working in a modern world?
The Helsinki Institute for Information technology has found that, on average, people check their phones 34 times a day. ‘Over dependence’ on our phones and/or other technology doesn’t necessarily describe a new medical condition it could just be a sign that much of our work and social lives are now conducted on our mobile phones.
Yes for some people this anxiety will be very real and disabling, and it’s absolutely essential for them to be seeking professional psychological help to help them manage that anxiety. But for most of us we just need to practice prudence and common sense.
• Keep your work mobile phone and your personal mobile phone separate. That way you can turn off your work mobile phone at night or when you are on holiday.
• Even if you use your mobile phone as an alarm clock, most handsets will allow you to turn off the ring tone but still use it as an alarm clock.
• Very few of us have jobs where we have to be instantly contactable. Let your phone go to voice mail and respond to the call at a more convenient time.
• Turning off your phone means turning it off – not putting it on vibrate. The constant vibration of your phone is just as annoying as the ringing.
• Before sending that text message or making that call, stop and think – do you really need to communicate that message now? Is it essential that your partner knows what you had for lunch, or that your office knows that you are delayed by 5 minutes or that you are ‘just coming into the station’ – or can that news wait until you see them face-to-face?
If you want to cut back on your mobile phone use, then lead by example – cut back on your communication and other people will follow your example. Manage your technology, don’t let it manage you.
For more information:
Bragazzi, N.L., Del Puente, G., (2014) A Proposal for Including Nomophobia in the new DSM. Psychol Res Behav Manag 7 155-160
Email is one of the technological innovations that has transformed the way that we work. But as with most technology, it can only ever be as useful as we allow it to be. It’s a bit like dog training. Most trainers will tell you that it isn’t the dog that needs training; it is their owner. So this is our attempt to train you to master your emails:
1. Don’t Prevaricate
Don’t allow your emails to become another form of prevarication or distraction. A day spent answering emails is not necessarily a productive day. Limit the amount of time you check your emails, and turn off any visual or audio notification systems. Your emails are there for you to check when you have time to focus on them – they should not be a siren call distracting you from your work.
2. Lead By Example
If you want to limit the number of emails that you are receiving then you need to lead by example, and try and encourage your organisation to develop an email protocol. Be clear and short in your communication. Don’t CC everyone in unless they really need to be copied in. Be clear about why you are sending the email and what response you are looking for. If possible give people a reasonable timeframe to respond in. Give yourself a reminder to check that they have responded.
3. Talk To People
Don’t email someone sat at the next desk or in a neighbouring office when you could just pop your head around the door and ask them a question. Face-to-face contact is good! Some organisations have a regular day when emails are discouraged and people are encouraged to speak to each other instead.
4. Pick Up The Phone
If it is urgent, pick up the phone. Don’t presume that people are going to be seeing your email and responding to it immediately.
5. Don’t Send Emails At Night
Ok, so you are working at 10 o’clock at night – but do you really have to let everyone else know that by sending out emails at that time? Night-time emails do not make you look dedicated and hard working – they make you look disorganised and unprofessional (unless you are working across time zones). Write the emails at this time if you have to – but save in your draft box and send them out during office hours. This is particularly important if you are sending emails to staff you are managing. Don’t encourage a culture of out of hour’s emails.
6. Don’t Send In Haste
Never send an email in haste. If you have any doubt about an email, save it in draft and give yourself 24 hours to think about it. Once that email has been sent there is no getting it back.
7. By Professional
Always presume that your email will be forwarded on to other people. Write your emails in a professional and considered way. Never gossip, or say anything in an email that you wouldn’t stand up in front of a group of your colleagues, clients or customers and say.
8. Don’t Clog Up Inboxes
Try not to send large attachments with your email it just clogs up people’s inboxes. Look at ways of storing the emails in a shared file and sending the link. This is particularly useful if you are asking people to comment on the document – by using a shared file everyone can comment on the same document and you don’t have the nightmare task of version control.
9. Separate Work and Personal Email Accounts
Separate out your work and personal emails. Have different accounts for both. Don’t use your work email address for making personal purchases or signing up to on-line groups and websites. It looks unprofessional. Combining the 2 email accounts also makes it impossible to monitor your personal emails whilst on holiday or at the weekends, without having to check you work emails.
10. Learn To File
Learn how to file your emails and search for them. Use the subject box to give an accurate description of the content. If the focus changes during a long stream of emails then change the subject box.
All common sense stuff, but all stuff that we can forget as we try to cope with the avalanche of emails that come our way. Instead of bemoaning the number of emails you receive, lead by example and show other people how they can send professional, effective, targeted emails that don’t just litter up other people’s inboxes.