ÜberTech

Mobile Devices Were Wrecking My Health. Here's How I Plan to Change That.

Summary:I'm the first guy to extol the fruits of mobile technology. The flexibility and power they provide, the productivity they can enhance.

I'm the first guy to extol the fruits of mobile technology. The flexibility and power they provide, the productivity they can enhance. But every sword has two edges (unless it's a sabre or scimitar, but I digress).

My eyesight - stuck at the same prescription for more than a decade - began worsening again about a year ago. I noticed I was sleeping less and less well, routinely waking up unrefreshed and with a sore lower back.

Mentally, I felt foggy in a way that a shot of Peet's Coffee or 5-Hour Energy could only temporarily cure. My once-infallible memory gave way to struggles to remember routine facts and names.

At first, I blamed other factors: parenting two young boys, crossing the big 4-oh, even a saggy mattress.

But there's increasing evidence that being unable to put down your mobile device after work can wreak havoc on your eyesightsleep, posture, ability to converse, even your basic sense of decency.

You won't be smiling when Nigel from the London office wakes you up at 3 am with a meeting invite.

Credit: Shutterstock.com

I don't expect the Surgeon General to start Warning that the Kindle Fire is Hazardous for One's Health. Still, it's clear that something so right can also be so wrong.

Let's look at my case. I watch sitcoms on Hulu and read magazine stories on my iPad's Longform app while lying in bed. Long after my wife's stopped reading Game of Thrones and turned off the lights, I'm still squinting at my work e-mail or reading blogs as "research" for new articles in the dark on my iPhone's undersized screen.

Barely 6 hours later, I'm startled awake from some weird nightmare involving something obscure (usually read on a blog hours earlier), as my iPhone cheerfully Dings! with a text message or BE-BOO-BEEPs with a new meeting invite.

Your habits probably mirror mine. In a Forbes piece, "Sleeping with your Smartphone? Here's the Cure," Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow and author of a recent book of the same name says her studies show that 26% of ALL people sleep with their smartphone by their side, while 70% check their e-mail within an hour of awakening.

According to another survey sponsored by iPass of mobile workers only, 44% keep their smartphones within arm's reach when sleeping. That rises to 60% with 22-34 year-olds.

39% said they wake up in the middle of the night to check e-mail (8% do it every night). When asked how their device keeps them awake at night, 47% said it made them think about work, while 36% said it wakes them with sounds at night.

And in the morning, 35% of workers said they check e-mail first thing. That is, before saying Good morning to their spouse or kids, greeting their pet, going to the toilet, etc.

First World Problems?

The always-connected workstyle is no doubt a boon. But humans can't always be jacked in. At the end of the workday, we need to...unplug, lest we create a sense of Information Overload for ourselves that can be as oppressive as an incompetent boss or toxic co-workers.

Perlow studied a group of elite management consultants whose CrackBerry addiction was causing them to quit in droves and have family problems.

As Perlow explains, elite consultants don’t just send one another emails at 1 a.m. They expect answers by 3 a.m. Their idea of wrapping up work early, in cities such as Tokyo, involves leaving the office at 9 p.m. instead of midnight...Perlow engaged a cluster of workaholics at Boston Consulting Group who wanted redemption. Her point of entry was George Martin, head of the firm’s Boston office, who noticed an unnerving number of BCG consultants were quitting because work hours had ballooned out of control. Anxious to improve BCG’s retention rate, he invited her to study BCG’s work habits for a year, with permission to try a detox program afterward.

Perlow started with a simple, minor — and ingenious — change to one small team’s routine. Instead of working late every night, she said, what if each consultant vowed to wrap up early one night a week. Do anything except work, she said. Play golf. Have dinner with your kids. See a movie. Pick your diversion; just find some way to reconnect with the rest of the world.

Consultants trembled. “What if my clients need me?” they asked. Get a colleague to cover for you, Perlow replied. And start holding weekly meetings where team members figure out how to divide up work more effectively. That way some part of the team can be available around the clock without requiring everyone  to be on call.

Gradually her approach took hold. Consultants discovered that they liked a little time off. They felt better about their jobs. They were less likely to quit. Most strikingly, they and their bosses rated their work more highly. Something about these pauses was making consulting more efficient, more team-oriented or maybe even more creative...Between the lines, though, are the outlines of a more poignant story. The most driven consultants also seem to be the loneliest — shouldering too much work themselves because they can’t imagine handing over responsibility to a peer. Deep trust in other people is lacking, as is a willingness to share the dreams and fears that become the basis for true friendship.

Several things stuck out for me. First, these Boston Consulting consultants were far more addicted to their CrackBerry than I'd ever been to my iPhone. And it was an addiction. Because, as they found out later when they stepped back one night a week, they DID have a choice - to choose not to confuse mindless business with actual productivity, to give themselves the headspace to clear their minds and recharge for the next day, to take what seemed like their lifeline to work and unwrap it from their necks.

Time for a Cool Change

Reading about those consultants weaning themselves gave me confidence that I could, too. I've created a plan:

1) Use mobile devices freely during and after work, except during mealtimes and conversations with friends and family. This includes while watching TV.

2) As bedtime approaches, I plug my iPad and iPhone into their respective chargers. I don't remove them until the next day.

3) To remove temptation and also disturbing sounds, I charge my iPhone in my home office, not my bedroom. The iPad, on which I don't get texts or meeting invites, I can charge in the bedroom.

4) The next morning, I make sure I greet my awake family members before going to my iPhone to check my appointments and e-mail.

That's it. Four simple, pragmatic steps. Seems easy enough. I'll report back to you in a month or so about whether my sleep habits and alertness have improved. In the meantime, I'd love to hear if you've had similar symptoms - and are making similar plans.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Smartphones

About

Eric Lai tracks the latest news and trends in enterprise mobility. A veteran tech journalist most recently covering enterprise software for Computerworld, Eric joined Sybase, an SAP company in April 2010. Eric's views are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of SAP. This blog is sponsored by SAP.

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