Time, Technology and Leisure

Icons of internet based technology services circling a cloud icon

About 40 years ago we were told that advances in technology would automate our lives to such a degree that by now we would all be swimming about in so much leisure time we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. 

As we approach the end of the year I am wondering what happened.  More people than ever report feeling stressed and harried, and most if asked would dispute having more leisure time.  If however you spend some time researching this topic you will learn that in fact overall leisure time has increased and working hours have fallen.   Research by the OECD suggests that Britains and Americans are working about 120 hours less per year now since they were I990.  Leisure time has increased by about 8 hours per week for men and 6 hours for women.  Even when digging into the statistics a little more deeply I find these conclusions surprising. 

So why is it that we do not recognise our increased leisure time?  Is there something else at play?    I wonder whether it is actually to do with the choices we make?   Do we not recognise leisure time for what it is?  Do we not know how to take time out?  A friend’s husband commented recently that it was she who is addicted to her blackberry, in contrast to her school age children who do know when to put their tablets down.   The friend in question works 4 days a week, runs a family home and organises three other lives aside from her own.  I suspect that she feels so harried and pressured about what she has to do, or so scared of what might get dropped at work that she cannot leave her email alone.  

In her latest book ‘Pressed for Time’ Professor Judy Wacjman argues that we like to blame technology for speeding up our lives and for that feeling that it’s all getting out of control.  Instead she argues it is the choices that we make around technology that are responsible and that sometimes we are not making enough choiceful decisions.  The speed of technology and the change that it brings does make it feel like the world is going faster, but as she points out very eloquently units of time have not actually changed! (http://bit.ly/1yDaJSD)

In 2011 Barley, Meyerson, and Grodal published ‘E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress’.  The paper drew on data collected in 2001/2002 from engineers within a large global computer company.  The results then, revealed what we intuitively know today.  Ask anybody feeling overwhelmed at work the major cause and high up on the list, if not at the top will be the volume of email (unless they work for ATOS, Daimler Chrysler, Volkswagen or the Labor Ministry in the German Government*).   Having a full inbox causes anxiety and it is for this reason that email is often the first task of the day, shaping the way the day will unfold, and again it is the last task of an often extended day.   It’s easy to blame the technology but in fact it’s the way in which we use email and the context in which it sits (ref Prof Judy Wacjman).   Changing patterns of work, working across time zones, meeting attendance, tele-calls and conferencing and an increasingly networked world all make a significant contribution to feeling overwhelmed.   Add to that the unwritten and unexpressed expectations for how we handle and respond to email (timing, frequency, cc’ing), as well as the accountability that that comes if we miss an something important, and it’s no wonder that most blame a tool that was not originally intended to replace telephone conversations.    There are studies that seem to suggest that the order of the day is receiving between 100-200 mails per day of which only 15% or so may actually be useful.  I wonder whether in fact when we rush to blame technology we are actually referring to email, exacerbated by the unspoken expectations and rules that we put in place when using email and possibly, other forms of social media. 

So where do we go from here?    How do we be more choiceful about our engagement with technology – or do we really mean email?   Our technological advances without a doubt had a positive impact on many aspects of our lives, becoming an essential part of the way in which we live, work and co-ordinate with each other professionally and personally.  Families, not just workplaces rely on technology to co-ordinate with each other on a daily basis. 

How should we be organising work experiences and expectations in order to reduce our overwhelm and stress?   What personal change do we need to make to quell the anxiety and the feeling that we are servants of the technology rather than the other way around?   What boundaries and conversations do we need to negotiate our way through to bring about change for ourselves?    And of technology, should we be asking for what purpose we intend to use it, rather than blindly accepting it is ‘all good’.    Whilst Big Ben is busy marking time, what commitments do we need to make with ourselves and with others that will keep the impact of technology to something that it more personally manageable?   Maybe we can start with delineating clear time for leisure, putting the email on hold.