Have you heard the term “digital burnout”? It’s a very real, and very powerful phenomenon driven by constant connectivity. Today’s technology offers so many benefits - most of us couldn’t live without it. However, it’s become such an integral part of our daily lives that it can often lead to stress. In other words, for all that technology has to offer, there is a dark side. Here’s what you need to know about this growing concern.
What is Digital Burnout?
It’s not easy to find the right balance with technology. Modern technology offers constant availability and connectivity, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. One of those downsides is something called digital burnout.
According to medical experts, digital burnout encompasses the feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, and apathy caused by spending too much time on digital devices - and it’s a growing problem. As technology makes us more interconnected and more of us rely on computers, tablets, and smartphones for work or school, the risk of burning out increases. One report from 2019 found that digital burnout is more common than you might think. That particular study surveyed 1,057 American office employees. Within that group, 87% spent an average of seven hours per day staring at screens. More than 50% of the survey respondents reported fatigue or depression coming from digital overload. Studies everywhere are confirming the same sort of findings.
In fact, the issue of burnout is big enough that the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that can influence physical and mental health. They define such challenges as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burned-out individuals experience “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.” Burnout can affect everyone, but digital burnout is reserved for those who spend too much time on digital devices. It can manifest in symptoms similar to general burnout, like sleep disruption, decreased energy, and even chest pains. It’s difficult to diagnose, because for most people the problem develops gradually. Many people don’t realize they are “burned out” until it's too late.
Too Much Screen Time = Anxiety
While digital burnout is mainly job related, there are other connections between mental well-being and digital devices. In addition to digital burnout that comes with too much access to technology, we should also consider the mental stress that comes with constant access to media. Watching too much TV or spending too much time on social media can interfere with normal life responsibilities and roles, and become problematic. For example, studies show that screen time before bed can create insomnia and sleep disruptions. A lack of sleep often leads to anxiety, negative moods, and irritability. Ironically, many people turn to social media to deal with those emotions, and so it becomes a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Many people struggle with the feeling that they might be “missing something” and are afraid to disconnect from social media or other technology apps. That feeds into the urge to constantly check news feeds or keep news on all day.
Furthermore, whether discussing politics, natural disasters, health scares, or tragic events, there’s plenty in the news that could invoke anxiety or stress reactions. Monitoring your news intake can help to alleviate some of these issues, but that can be difficult to do when you’re constantly connected.
Time to Unplug: Tips for Managing Digital Burnout from Technology
Of course, the most effective way to combat the burnout and overload that comes with technology is to simply turn it off. As we all know, it’s not that easy. The 24/7 demands of our hyper-connected world make it almost impossible to simply turn technology systems off. What are some real-world tactics for turning off technology when it begins to impact your mental health?
Take your time responding
Too often, we feel the need to constantly monitor our communication channels and respond to people immediately. If you feel the need to drop what you’re doing and answer messages, consider asking yourself if that’s actually necessary. Having a constant sense of urgency leads to stress and poor time management (it’s hard to complete important tasks if you have to keep stopping and changing your focus). Instead, set aside certain times of the day to respond to messages. You’ll feel more at ease if you know you have time slots to take care of texts and emails. The truth is that not all communication is urgent, and most of it can wait. You may choose to avoid checking email or text until you’re in a better position to do something about what you read.
Leave work at work
Another tip that is easier said than done. Your phone and computer allow you to be connected to people around the clock, but chances are deep down you don’t always feel that it’s the right thing. How much do you really need to be in touch outside of business hours? Some time should be considered sacred and beyond the reach of co-workers or clients. For example, if you enjoy having family dinners, make sure your phone is put away during them. Along those lines, it’s important not to check email before bed. Instead, focus on winding down, relaxing,and preparing for a good night’s sleep. Messages will be there in the morning and you’ll be better prepared to take action on them.
Connect face-to-face when possible
During the pandemic, digital touchpoints had to take the place of many of our in-person interactions. For many people, that never really changed once the threat was over. In fact, many true introverts prefer things that way. However, it’s healthy to try to fit face-to-face connections in when possible. Consider how many people you communicate with exclusively through digital channels like email or text. Could you make small changes to better connect with those people? When you can, make a quick phone call or coffee date for something you’d normally email about. Stop by a colleague’s office or set up a meeting for more effective group communications. You’ll improve your personal connections which is great for your mental health as well as professional success.
Cut down on digital accounts
How many digital platforms do you use and how many different accounts do you use? Have you ever counted how many apps you have on your phone? Which ones do you use often, and which ones tend to be a time-sink or a waste of energy? Chances are you really don’t need all of the technology you have access to and there are ways to work smarter instead of harder. Start by going through your phone and computer, and deleting the stuff you don’t need. Aim to cut down on distractions wherever possible. If you haven’t used an app or platform in over a month, you probably don’t really need it. Or, if you notice that you end up scrolling on a certain platform for over an hour (when you could be doing other things), then you may want to delete the app. Consider the additional time and productivity you’ll gain in your life by cutting down on unused (or wasteful) digital platforms.
Related Post: Are All Your Apps Actually Killing Your Productivity?
Take a step back from the news media
Some media consumption is fine, and even healthy. However, as we described, too much media consumption can bring negative outcomes into your life. It’s healthy to take steps to limit exposure to troubling news. Take stock of the media you consume and think about what information is helpful vs. information that leads to stress, anger, or other negative feelings. Be selective about the media that you trust and invest time into. Remove anxiety-producing sources from your news feeds and resources. The same goes for people who might fill your feeds on social media. If you find yourself constantly rolling your eyes at certain Instagram posts, it’s time to block that user. There is good news out there! Take the time to replace the negative with positive sources that uplift you, and you’ll go about your day in a much better mood.
Consolidate notifications when possible
A notification aggregator is a system that collects your notifications and displays them to you in a streamlined format, so that you are not at the mercy of several different platforms sending you push notifications and distracting you throughout the day. There are a few different options for notification aggregator phone apps - but fewer options for desktop usage. Though desktops tend to experience less notifications than mobile devices, users still receive a lot of them. Your best bet may be to dig into specific settings and make adjustments that will make you happier with your notification management. Shift offers notification management that can apply across all the apps you use every day, from Outlook to Facebook to Slack and beyond. With a couple of clicks, you can mute all notifications temporarily or control the sounds that play when a notification comes through. Shift brings together all of the notifications from any of your apps and email accounts and displays them in one place. You don’t have to look in multiple places anymore just to see what new alerts you have.
Related Post: How to Get All of Your Notifications in One Place
Take Control of Notifications with Shift
Notifications are a small symptom of our larger reliance on technology, but they do tend to be a source of stress for tech users. Notifications are a crucial part of the software world and deeply ingrained into our daily lives whenever we are in front of any type of screen.
Consider the various forms of notifications that come through on your computer every day. Some of the most common systems that are guilty of cluttering mental space with alerts are:
- Email messages - This is a huge one for people sitting in front of a desktop computer every day. Many people have trouble turning off alerts for email because they don’t want to miss anything. The problem is, email alerts are particularly distracting because they often come with an action item. After all, if the person emailing you didn’t need something, there probably wouldn’t be a need for the message at all, right? Depending on the type of job you have, you may only be able to reduce or better organize these notifications, rather than getting rid of them altogether.
- Calendar appointments - Some people find calendar reminders incredibly valuable - and in fact, may never get to meetings on time without them. Others find them a nuisance and don’t want to be reminded multiple times of a meeting - especially if they are trying to wrap up work before walking into one. If you fall in the camp that doesn’t find them helpful, it’s worth addressing.
- Task list reminders - Task management software can be incredibly helpful - but that doesn’t mean the notifications you get from them always are. If you make a to-do list using a software system, you are likely to get notifications.
- Project management alerts - Many workplaces use project management apps and the productivity and time-keeping they enable can be powerful motivators to use them. However, you are likely to get notifications from them, which you may or may not like. Which alerts you need are probably negotiable. You should make sure you are available for urgent situations, so simply turning off notifications isn’t the best option. Rather, finding better ways to manage these alerts would be more beneficial.
- Social media - Social media isn’t a great use of your workday anyway (unless it’s part of your job). That doesn’t mean most people don’t log in and check social media during their day. If the notifications don’t relate to your specific business or job accounts, you might be better off simply turning off these notifications.
- News alerts - It’s always good to know if there’s truly breaking news happening, but in most circumstances that is pretty rare. News alerts are particularly susceptible to causing distractions, as many people will end up clicking on the link to an article. And once you read an article, you might be tempted to find even more information. Before you know it, an hour has gone by and you can’t even find the original task you were working on. Alerts for news that doesn’t pertain to you locally or that doesn’t require an immediate action on your part can probably be reduced.
- Group chat apps - These platforms were designed to save time and facilitate communication. Tools like Slack can make a big difference in a team’s performance. However, if your workplace uses those tools, you’re likely to get notifications throughout the day. You may also be getting email or text notifications about the same set of information. A constant stream of messages is sure to cut into your productivity. Not only that, it may increase your stress level.
Shift is a powerful tool for people who are trying to work more productively in their desktop environment while avoiding burnout or overload. Anyone who uses online platforms will find Shift to be a valuable resource for streamlining technology and maintaining healthy best practices for digital use.