This morning, as most mornings, I was pulled from the depths of sleep by the relentlessly chipper jingle coming from my bedside table. Face pressed into the pillow, my hand reached out, blindly groping for the source of the noise. I gripped my phone, rolled over and swiped, peeling my eyes open to type in the passcode. Unthinkingly, instinctively, I tapped into Instagram and began to scroll.
It’s a problem, I know.
Before I’ve sat up, or even wiped the sleep from my eyes, I’m inviting the world into my bedroom, bombarding my brain with an endless gallery of other people’s lives through a hazy Amaro filter.
I am part of a generation that processes the world through screens. I log my thoughts on this blog, talk with friends on Facebook, keep up with news via Twitter, track my reading habits on Goodreads and monitor emails via multiple devices, my physical habits and feelings marked by a thick trail of digital breadcrumbs.
This chronic availability is creating a society of people whose default state is overdrive. Many of us have never experienced a healthy work-life balance.
I, and many of my friends, entered the workforce in the last five years. We have never known a time in our professional lives when we couldn’t be summoned at the click of the button. Seduced by the promise of Apple’s latest offering, we eagerly accept a ‘free’ work phone and sign away our right to choose not to answer – tapping away under the table at the pub on a Friday night, ducking out of Sunday lunch to answer a phone call, scrolling through emails between courses. ‘I’ll only be a second’, we chorus, eyes apologetic, tone frantic. ‘It’s work.’
There’s a strange status attached to overworking. We imbue the extra hours spent at our desks with a significance and respect, nod understandingly at our friends who keep one eye on their emails and, more often than not, allow our minds and fingers to stray to our own digital devices, mentally checking off to-do lists that never seem to shorten.
What’s more, seeing this kind of behaviour digitally and physically on a daily basis reinforces the feeling that overworking is inevitable for young professionals. The more time we spend gazing enviously at a friend’s Instagram snap from their work trip to New York, or feeling like a lemon in the pub as our drinking companion excuses themselves to take a call from their boss, the harder it is to maintain a line between our professional lives and our personal ones.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the subtext of this behaviour. When you sit at your desk for hours after your boss has gone home or respond to your manager’s casual request within 15 minutes on a weekend, what silent message accompanies your actions? I am a hard worker, I am ambitious, I can be trusted? I am disorganised, I am incompetent, I am desperate?
Thinking back over my professional highlights, I realise that my most significant achievements have all occurred during office hours. The projects that have proceeded promotions or earned me accolades are projects that I’ve slaved away at, put a whole heap of effort into and set aside until the previous morning once the clock hits 5.30.
I am lucky. I make it a point to leave the office on time, because I can. I work for a small, supportive company where my manager is the first out the door at 5.30 so that she can pick her kids up from school, and the CEO is happy to grant me last-minute holiday so that I can spend time with my boyfriend.
I don’t feel that my ambition or value as an employee is measured by the amount of minutes I spend sat at my desk as the sun fades to strip lighting, stomach rumbling, scrolling twitter and hoping that I appear busy. But, more importantly, those with the power to help me progress feel the same way.
Not everyone has the option to skip out of the door at the same time every day, or to disconnect their work emails from their phone. That makes it even more important to find balance by seizing the time you have and setting boundaries where you can. If you know you have to stay late, go for a walk around the block at lunch. If you have to check your emails on a weekend, do one thing for yourself for every response you send: read a chapter of a book, run a bath, make a cup of tea. If you’ve made plans to see a friend on a weeknight evening, tell your colleagues how excited you are for an evening off so that they’re aware you won’t be sitting around refreshing your emails all night. Once you’re with your friend, keep your phone on silent in your bag. If you really struggle to break the habit, do something that makes it impossible for you to use your phone for a few hours – tickets to the theatre or the cinema, for example.
I know these tips sound simple, but I’ve found they work. Besides, when your brain is completely fried and your phone won’t stop buzzing, sometimes a really good cup of tea is as close to bliss as it gets.