Tech stress – how do you cope with it?
Overloaded email boxes and endless notifications mean sleepless nights for many
Information overload: experts believe that being constantly distracted by social media, emails and texts can have an impact on our ability to be productive. Photograph: Thinkstock
Call it what you will – information overload, the distraction trap or dot complicated as Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has defined it in her book of the same title. The stress caused by the pervasiveness of technology in such a big part of our lives is such that some of us do not even notice it – until it becomes unmanageable.
Chris Flack, co-founder of Unplug, which runs technology detox workshops says 40-50 per cent of people are switched on 24/7. “We’re hooked on checking our emails. We have our phones in meetings and the main issue is that we are expected to respond to things immediately.”
According to Flack, sleep deprivation is the first symptom of technology stress. “If you’re expecting a text message or a Facebook notification during the day, you’re still expecting that dopamine [the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres] rush at night time. Even the blue light on the phone can prevent people from sleeping well,” he says.
The biggest concern in the world of business and education is that such information overload or distraction will have an impact on our ability to pay attention and be productive.
“It’s the relentlessness and ubiquitous nature of technology that’s the problem,” says Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin. “There is no safe place where the mind can be relieved from the unconscious associations and pressures of work,” he says.
“Before this time, you could move into different mental states – from work to home. Now, technology reduces the downtime for your mind. The risk is that you won’t be able to do other mental activities to make adjustments in your life. You are less likely to see the big picture.”
Attention and memory
“Similarly, there is a mental switching cost any time you are interrupted from what you are doing by messages. It’s inefficient to be constantly responding. Also, if you’re constantly occupied by technology, there is less time for sudden remembering or creative thoughts.”
Some organisations actively discourage their staff from over-engagement with technology – including banning email use. “Some corporates have what’s called single tab Tuesdays where you can have only one tab open at the same time,” says Flack. Others encourage the use of automated out-of-office replies which state that emails are checked only twice a day because it helps the person be more productive. Some even provide a number, asking people to start their text with the word urgent if, of course, the message is urgent.
“The big thing is to encourage mono-tasking because multi-tasking doesn’t work when technology is added in. Unless you create pauses during the day or moments for contemplation, cracks will appear,” says Flack.
There are, of course, several new technologies that will help people manage their use of technology better. These include the Slack app, a messaging app that promises to send you only relevant notifications or conversations in which you are directly involved.
There is also free software (f.lux) that changes the brightness of your phone to reflect the time of day or night so the brightness doesn’t prevent you from sleeping. And a “light phone” which is similar to an older mobile phone, without all the apps, but it is connected to the smartphone that you leave at home.
“With the light phone you can make or receive phone calls without being distracted by the noise of social media,” says Flack.
Ultimately, it’s about changing your behaviour or “social etiquette” around technology.
For an “unplug diet”, people can pick and choose their approach, advises Flack. “You can choose to have a text-free zone or text-free time in your house. As well as this, it’s about finding mindful moments in your day by writing in a journal, walking, doing breathing work or yoga. Then you’re less likely to react instantly to something which will help you deal with technology better,” says Flack.
“On one level, the 24/7 connection has meant their peer-to-peer support is much stronger but they are constantly consuming and absorbing lifestyles from social media that puts pressure on them,” she says.
Sleep deprivation is also a big issue she says, with numerous studies showing higher levels of insomnia in teenagers who snuggle up with their smartphones.