I am not very good at separating my work from my life, partially because my work is a big chunk of my life. I’m that person who tucks herself into bed by checking email and reading blogs from my iPhone. And instead of waking up to the bright sunlight, I wake up to the sterile glare of my iPhone for another quick check. I’ve also been known to sleep with my laptop.
We all know many people — and you very well might be one of them — who are married to their gadgets, whether it’s their smart phone, iPad, laptop or some other tech toy.
All this accessibility and portability, while convenient and entertaining, has its downsides. It’s created unrealistic expectations on the job (respond to email at 9 p.m.? OK, boss!), and can hurt relationships, according to psychologist and coach Dana Gionta, Ph.D.
At her practice, she’s seen how technology can compromise one’s connection with loved ones. For instance, after work, some of her clients head straight to their computers. Instead of spending that time with loved ones, they inadvertently isolate and separate themselves, she said. Similarly, they may be physically present but not mentally or emotionally engaged. While they’re sitting at the dinner table, they still might be glued to their gadgets, everyone’s voices a mere hum in their head while they’re dialed in.
As Gionta said, “one of the greatest gifts you can give to a loved one is your time and presence.” But when we’re attached to technology, we convey the message that our loved ones aren’t important to us, she said.
Gionta offered several suggestions for reeling in your gadget use and making sure that technology doesn’t railroad your relationships or your life. At the core, it’s about creating boundaries and sticking to them.
1. Talk to your family.
If you have a spouse and kids, have an open conversation with them about when it’s appropriate to turn to technology and when it isn’t. Think about your most important rituals and times of the day that you’d like to protect (like dinnertime or breakfast on the weekends) and those that are less important. During these less important lulls, everyone can take 30 minutes for tech time.
However, Gionta underscored that every couple and family is different in what works for them. For instance, some couples prefer more alone time than others, so an hour of work or play at night on their laptops isn’t a big deal. Other couples, however, use the evening as their sacred time. The important thing is to be on the same page and for everyone to feel respected and cared for.
2. Establish structure.
If you have a demanding job or a hobby that requires being plugged in, establish a time every evening that you’ll check your email and do your work. If you have kids, that time might be their bedtime.
Allotting the same time every night lets you accomplish your tasks without distraction, reduces your anxiety and won’t interfere with special moments, Gionta said. This way, you’re fitting in technology when it works best for you — instead of doing everything around technology.
3. Maintain “checks and balances.”
Life is filled with exceptions, Gionta said. So there will be times when you’ll have to take phone calls during dinner or work through the evening. The key, she said, is to check in with your loved ones to see if they feel like you’re present and available.
Also, if you have a busy week or weeks coming up, communicate that to your family, so everyone knows what to expect.
4. Keep gadgets in a designated spot.
Let’s be honest: When your smart phone or iPad is close by, it’s temping to grab it and start surfing. Sometimes out of sight really is out of mind. By setting a specific place for using technology (like an office or den), you’re creating a clear-cut physical boundary, she said.
5. Become more self-aware.
If you’re constantly feeling the need to be productive, Gionta said to ask yourself, “Where is the pressure coming from?” Identify whether the driving force is external, like work, or internal, like your own need to be efficient. Once you’re able to spot the source, you can take action to overcome it.
6. Get to the root of the problem.
Setting boundaries at home around tech use is valuable, but if the source of your stress is your job, you’re just creating a Band-Aid. For instance, depending on your job, your boss may expect you to check email at 10 p.m. and respond immediately. Or there may be an implicit expectation at your office to work 24/7. If that’s a problem for you, consider talking to your employer and setting realistic expectations.
If you’re a small business owner, some of your clients may expect you to be at their beck and call early in the morning or late into the evening, especially if you’re just starting out. Consider the pros and cons of being so accessible and speak up if that doesn’t work for you.
7. Notice when you’re slipping.
How do you know when you’re reverting to old habits? Think of your tech use like self-care, Gionta said. If you’re spending less and less time each week being active or socializing with friends, you know your self-care is slipping. It might be subtle such as skipping your evening walk or talking to a close friend once a week instead of your usual two times.
In other words, watch for sly signs that your tech use is increasing. Maybe you’re bringing your phone to the dinner table, using your laptop longer or your iPad before bed or spending more time socializing on Facebook than with your family.
Remember that how often you use technology and let it blur the lines between work and life is up to you and your family. What matters is that you’re running your gadgets — instead of them running you.