The idea of “work-life balance” is an invention of the mid-19thcentury. The notion of cultivating awareness of one’s work versus one’s pleasure emerged when the word “leisure” caught on in Europe in the Industrial Era. Work became separate from “life” (at least for a certain class of men) and we’ve been struggling to juggle them ever since.
Today, when so much work and leisure time involve staring at screens, I see a different struggle arising: a struggle to find a healthy balance between technology and the physical world, or, for short, “tech/body balance.” A 2016 survey from Deloitte found that Americans collectively check their phones 8 billion times per day. The average for individual Americans was 46 checks per day, including during leisure time—watching TV, spending time with friends, eating dinner.
So attached are we to our devices that it’s not unusual to have your phone with you at all times. We carry our phones around everywhere as if they are epi-pens and we all have fatal allergies. Consider: two weeks ago, as I was beginning a consulting project at a midtown Manhattan corporate office, I found myself making a U-turn on the way to the restroom. I needed to go back to my office to pick up my cellphone, which I had inadvertently left behind. It was an unconscious decision to go back and get it, but my assumption was clear: I needed to take the phone with me to the bathroom. Was I going to make a clandestine call from a bathroom stall? No. Was I dealing with an urgent business matter? Fortunately not. So why did I need my phone with me while I took care of a basic physical need? I didn’t really know. But apparently 90% of us use our phones in the bathroom.
According to recent data from Nielsen, 87% of Singapore’s 5.4 million population reports owning a smartphone, while a smaller but still substantial 68% of Americans own smartphones. A hefty 89% of American workers have reported feeling chronic body pain as a result of the posture they’ve developed using these devices, and 82% of this same group also say that the presence of phones “deteriorated” their most recent conversations. Pew Globalrecently released a report about the correlation between smartphone use and economic growth, noting that the rates of technology-use are not only climbing steadily in advanced economies, but also in countries with emerging economies. As additional reference points, 39% of the Japanese population reports owning a smartphone, while 59% of Turkey reports relying on mobile internet use. These numbers decrease in developing countries, given the relationship that exists between a person’s educational background, socioeconomic status, and their access to technology.
But whether we are among those who use our devices to work remotely, or we are just obsessed with them because of the culture we live in regardless of how much time we are spending on “work,” it’s time to shift our attention to what tech-body balance could look like.
I decided to launch a two-week, informal experiment to explore what tech-body balance might look like, even as I failed to embody it. I divided my experiments into three categories, based on three basic bodily needs:
For me and for many, the time in bed before sleep is a time to finally stop focusing on tasks to do and bask in feeling unfocused and empty-headed. For me, this means mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Twitter to tire out my eyes until I am ready for sleep. Sometimes, I’ll mindlessly scroll for as much as an hour. So one night, I decided to impose a time limit. I gave myself five minutes, and they went by in one second. At the end of them, I felt annoyed by my self-imposed discipline and wanted to keep scrolling, even as I realized I had not learned anything new or even been entertained by the activity.
Sure, my work-life balance is fine in those moments, as I’m not writing work emails in bed (though yes, I have done that too). But what about my tech-body balance? My neck is strained while looking at my phone, my wrists tire from scrolling, and my attention is fully dedicated to my brightly lit device, rather than winding down for sleep.
Since imposing a time limit didn’t work very well, I decided a more drastic experiment was needed. I tried using a real, old-fashioned alarm clock to wake myself up (rather than the alarm on my phone), and left my phone in the charger a short walk from my bed. Embarrassingly, this felt like a radical decision to make—and you know what? It was. I didn’t look at my phone before bed, and instead let myself think in the dark, and let my eyes tire on their own.
Our bodies and minds need fuel to function properly, and eating food is what gives us fuel. Of course, eating can introduce complications like digestive malaise when stress is in the picture (at least that’s true for me), or when I, like so many of us, inhale my food while sitting at my computer writing emails, thinking about a million things at once.
I tried to stop staring at screens while I was eating, but honestly, it was hard. I was not able to make this a regular habit due to pragmatic concerns like a busy day or not enough time to eat lunch. But I tried it on several occasions, and that in itself felt illuminating.
What if you chose, once a week, to eat one meal alone without your phone or a computer nearby? It might feel unsettling, but you will feel your body, and you may find you are even able to eat more slowly, chew more carefully, and enjoy your food a lot more.
Personally, I love talking on the phone while walking, and find that my ideas are more organic and free to arrive at my mind when I am on the move. I decided that my first experiment here would just be to walk during more of my phone calls, rather than take them seated at a desk, staring at a screen. Sure, you may be distracted by your surroundings while you are walking, but it is dynamic distraction that prevents you from looking at another device. (I don’t know about you, but I have the awful habit of writing emails while on calls).
To try out something more radical, even scary (as much as I am embarrassed to admit it), I decided to take a walk the other afternoon during the work day, and very deliberately left my phone behind. More than usual, I felt little reminders pop into my head, tempting me to get my phone to jot it down in G-cal or in my Notes app. But instead, I had to experience the discomfort of knowing that I’d either remember what I needed to remember organically, or simply forget and accept the consequences. It was uncomfortable to take this walk, particularly as I did it during a day when I felt stressed and busy at work. But of course, the counterintuitive wisdom I hoped for did arrive: the break from the stressors of my phone and computer gave me a sense of spaciousness and freedom, even though there were distinct moments of panic and disorientation. At one point, I reached into my pocket and felt the cortisol rush as I genuinely thought I lost my phone.
As you can tell, I didn’t have an easy time with this experiment, and it was certainly not a strict “digital detox.” But I think that tech-body balance shouldn’t be extreme. Extreme behavioral shifts strike me as unsustainable and unproductive. Like work-life balance, finding tech-body balance is a constant experiment, and one that is different for everyone. Tech, like “work,” is something that’s mostly a positive thing for each of us, and for the world we live in. But it is important to remember that we often do not need our phones with us, regardless of how much it may feel like we do.
Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based writer and editor. Charlotte graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, where she majored in English. You can find her at @clieberwoman.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/04/device-free-time-is-as-important-as-work-life-balance
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