Our world may have been considered a digital one for many years, but ever since COVID-19 hit, the true extent of our digital dependence has been revealed—and it’s a grim reality to face. For many of us, the novelty of working from home soon wore off, and as we attempted to juggle our personal and professional responsibilities while dealing with all the anxiety and isolation of a global pandemic, levels of stress and burnout soared. We may have a vaccine for COVID now, but the negative impact of the pandemic on the ways that we live, work and connect with others are far more insidious—and arguably just as important to fix.
Most of us are utterly glued to our screens; we check our phones first thing in the morning, spend all day working on a laptop, and then zone out in front of TV in the evenings to “relax”. While relying on digital tools may have been a necessity while the world was working from home, these new habits have already become hardwired—not just among individuals but within organizations too. Because we’re not just using digital tools to ensure we can work remotely; we’re using them to work more.
Recent research from Microsoft tracked the working habits of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries over the last year, revealing extremely alarming results. On average, people are spending 148% more minutes in weekly meetings; they’re sending 42% more chats outside of working hours (200% on weekends), and in total, Microsoft users received 40 billion more emails in February 2021 than the year before.
When you work remotely, there are no boundaries between work and home, and for this reason people who WFH are already more prone to burnout than their in-office counterparts. Now, however, we're dealing with increased levels of virtual presenteeism, where employees are attending more meetings than ever before, just to show that they’re working and engaged; they reply to emails late at night, work on weekends, and spend most of their day in front of a screen.
And because we’re constantly plugged in, this creates a huge cognitive load that places serious stress on our brains. If this digital intensity is what our new world of work will look like, we need to find new ways of managing this stress so it doesn’t overwhelm us – and so we can protect our personal lives and maintain a healthy work/life balance.
In a world that’s oversaturated with tech and tools, many of us feel a desire to step back from it all— to remove all the unnecessary digital clutter and focus on what’s truly important to us. And this is what digital minimalism is all about—living intentionally with tech. To ensure we have time to spend on the things that are meaningful to us, we need to eliminate all those unnecessary digital tasks and activities that take up our time.
Think about all the apps you waste time scrolling through, and delete all those that don’t provide real value. Then, look at what distracts you: is it browsing unproductive websites, or the constant pinging of your phone? Choosing what information you want to receive and when is one of the most vital steps for countering digital intensity; why should you read important work emails during your leisure time, or get anxiety-inducing news alerts when you’re trying to relax?
In order to become more mindful of our relationship with tech, and figure out which tools actually provide any value, we need to be aware of how much we’re really using them. Most people grossly underestimate the amount of time they spend on their screens. For example, 60% of Americans believe they touch their phone less than 100 times per day, when on average they tap or touch their phone an unbelievable 2,617 times per day.
Tracking how much time you spend on apps doesn’t just give you a cold, hard dose of reality—it also allows you to qualify your digital time. Once you know precisely how much time you’re spending on work or social apps and websites, you can then start taking the steps to manage it effectively.
When we’re working from home, it’s really easy to lose track of how many hours we’ve worked each week. An overrunning meeting, a missed lunch break, that extra hour you spend replying to emails in the evening… all this adds up, and if you don’t keep track of your hours and your capacity, you’re placing yourself at risk of stress and burnout.
To reinforce your boundaries, accurately track your work hours. This doesn’t have to be another task you add to your to-do list, something that overburdens you even more; these days, automatic tracking tools like Timely can help you do it with minimal effort. More broadly, time tracking is an essential tool for every home worker, helping to keep your workload, capacity and any overtime visible to your employeer—and yourself.
It’s true that in spite of our overreliance on tech, our working world is changing in positive ways, too. Companies are beginning to prioritize the humanity and individuality of employees, offering remote stipends and investing in wellbeing tech. But right now it’s still up to us to establish clear boundaries between our personal and professional lives… and then take the necessary steps to protect those boundaries and our own wellbeing.