In a past issue of The Economist, an article suggested that workers would be better off if they did less and thought more. The author observed that today’s business environment has too many distractions and disruptions, and speculated that a major component of what’s keeping us all busy (and distracted) is social media.
Before technological advancements moved from a steady cadence to an all-out gallop, most managers had secretaries to handle their daily minutiae, which gave them a lot of time to think. Nowadays, secretaries — like rotary phones and vinyl records — have become nostalgic relics. One of the consequences of a hyper-connected world is that managers do their own typing and answer their own phones.
The technology revolution has been both a help and a hindrance in balancing our work schedules. In addition to participating in meetings, attending to projects, and strategizing, most modern day workers juggle phone calls, text and instant messages, and emails as a part of their daily (and often nightly) routines. The workday is supposed to be our most professionally creative time, but it’s hard to be creative when we are bombarded by a steady stream of distractions, oftentimes leaving the actual work to be completed during off-hours when we should be focused on our families, hobbies, and other personal pursuits.
While social media has opened up unprecedented possibilities for expanding our access to all kinds of people, it is also a major culprit for why so many of us feel so overwhelmed. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, as of 2013, almost 72% of online US adults used social networking sites, up from a mere 8% in early 2005. This dramatic increase no doubt reflects the influence of social media gurus who preach that the more you are connected and the more you share, then the more your profile will rise, the more followers you’ll gain, and the more likes you will earn! If they’re not engaged, people fear missing out, not being on the leading edge, not being the first to know. However, for most of us, all this engagement can be overwhelming, leaving no time for what is becoming the lost art of thinking.
Not so long ago, most employers prohibited workers from browsing the web. Now, we encourage employees to retweet and post on behalf of our firms so much so that we have integrated this activity into our marketing plans. And, more and more, bring-your-own-device policies mean people are connected to work 24/7.
In considering solutions to reduce our sense of being overwhelmed and for bringing thought and reflection back to the workplace, I am not advocating that employees stop using social media. In fact, I’m campaigning for both coworkers and friends to adopt and embrace it. After all, social media is one of the defining technologies of our time. However, like any technology, it can be overused. No, what I am suggesting is that we schedule “digital detoxes.” It’s really quite simple and takes just a bit of planning.
As companies continue to embrace the web as a valid resource for connectivity, my hope is that they also will hold onto the values of thinking and reflection. While they exhort workers to leverage the power of social media, they should also encourage them to step away and put down the device regularly in order to focus, single-task, or maybe do a little thinking. This can only lead to a more enriched and balanced corporate culture.
Thinking is still an important business activity. If each of us would devote just one hour a week and unplug during normal working hours, consider how much more thinking we would do—approximately 55 million hours of thinking per week in the U.S. alone.
This post was originally published September 3, 2013, on the Optimity Advisors Blog