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Connection Overload! 5 Fallacies that Fuel Our Addiction to Technology and Increase Stress

How technology impacts our productivity, performance, and relationships.

Okay, raise your hand if you don't have a cell phone? How about an iPod? An iPad? An eReader? A laptop? An email account? How about unlimited texting? Facebook? LinkedIn? Twitter? MySpace? Skype? How many of you start twitching if it takes longer than a second or two to connect to your favorite website or download data?

I obviously can't see how many hands are going up, but I suspect very few. Every time we hear a ding, beep, tweet, swoosh, vibration, or obnoxiously loud tune blaring from someone's purse (or our own), our world pretty much stops. Who's on the other end of that communication? Inquiring minds want to know! So like a good junkie, we program our "dealers" (aka our electronic devices) to immediately alert us the moment a "fix" (aka a message) arrives.

Think I'm being too strong? Just remember back to the last time your SmartPhone's battery died and there was ... OMG ... no plug in sight! Or what about when your Internet went down? For an entire hour!!!

Come on now, don't play that denial with me. I'm a psychologist, remember? And I know that you know exactly what I'm talking about ... the frustration, the anger, and if our "dealers" go down for too long, the panic--all brought about because, for a relatively short moment in our lives, we can't resist the impulse to find out which of our equally addicted "friends" (who in some cases are people we don't even know!) are trying to reach out and touch.

The truth is ... we've become a society full of instant communication junkies. And our fixes are all those immediate connections we make each time we turn on one of our super cool (and getting cooler every day) gadgets. But it's a good kind of addiction, right? Connections are good, aren't they? Plus, we're all bright, savvy high-achievers. Surely we can control when it's a good time to "connect" and when it isn't. And thanks to all those wonderful little gadgets that connect us morning, noon, and night, just look at how much more we can get done.

Okay, let's look ... at the hard evidence in contrast to the misconceptions that many hold about technology and the role it plays in our productivity, performance, and relationships.

Fallacy #1: We have control over when we connect.

Researchers have found that although we "users" (that's the nice term researchers use for instant communication addicts) believe we have control over when we choose to respond to an "alert" (e.g., beep, ding, vibration signaling that a message is waiting) and therefore see no need to disable these alerts, the truth is that we don't have as much control as we think or would like to have. All too often, the identity of the person sending the alert and the content of the message influence if we respond, even if the alert comes in when we're working on something important. In other words, although we may have the best intentions of not letting anything distract us from what we're doing, those intentions often fall to the wayside depending on who's on the other end of the communication and how interested we are in the communication.

Fallacy #2: Our ability to instantly "connect" improves our productivity.

According to numerous studies, the effects that interruptions have on our productivity and performance are pretty substantial (yes, I know ... how dare I defame those precious fixes by calling them interruptions--please just humor me and keep reading). Research has found that once we divert our attention away from what we're doing to respond to an alert, we rarely leave our work in a way that will allow us to easily pick up where we left off (e.g., not marking our place, not saving the work, not completing a thought or a sentence before we break away). And although we may like to think we're in control of how much time we spend away from our original task when we respond to an alert, we're not. Researchers Shamsi Iqbal and Eric Horvitz have found that when we break away from a project to respond to an alert, we're largely unaware of how much time we spend away from the project. In fact, we're often drawn to other tasks or alerts unrelated to either the alert or to what we were originally working on.

Fallacy #3: Technology-based interruptions don't take much time away from our work.

Iqbal and Horvitz's research also tells us that when we break away to respond to an alert, then come back to the original task, it takes quite a bit of time for us to mentally return to where we left off. They discovered, for example, that each time we leave a task to respond to an email, it takes, on average, about 16 minutes to get back to the point of productivity we were at before we were distracted. For instant messages, the average time to get back to where we were is 11 to 12 minutes. I'll let you do the math. But the point is, each time we go for that fix, we're not gaining time. We're losing time--a lot of it. And in today's competitive, stress-filled, produce-or-die world, time is not something we can really afford to lose.

Fallacy #4: Technology-based interruptions don't affect our work patterns.

Not so, says researcher Gloria Mark and her colleagues. Their research has shown that any type of disruption, whether it be related to what we're working on (a colleague asking a question about stress when you're writing an article about stress) or unrelated (a text message about dinner when you're working on a monthly status report) causes a change in our work patterns. Mark says that one of the most obvious changes is a change in our work rhythm. In other words, when we're pulled off course, it upsets our pace. In addition, disruptions cause us to have to work faster to catch up, which may result in more mistakes or less complete work than we would normally produce.

Fallacy #5: Technology keeps us connected and improves our relationships.

While technology certainly helps us stay connected, even find long, lost friends, like anything else, too much of a good thing can cause more harm than good. In the last few years, there has been a surge of couples entering counseling specifically because all of this connectivity is wreaking havoc on many relationships. "It's like he's in the room, but he's not really there" is a common complaint from partners in today's overly connected world.

Cell phones, computers, fax machines, emails, instant messages, and text messages all badly blur the increasingly thin boundaries between work and life. The activities that were once considered "down time," such as lunch, dinner with family or friends, social events, even sleep times, are no longer sacred in this constantly "on" world that we currently live in, a world that has become a much smaller, more interdependent one due in large part to technological advances. And while these advances bring about many good things to our lives, the unfortunate price is increased stress in lives that are already way too stressed to begin with.

So how does this addiction story end? Pretty much like all my stories about stress end. There's hope. Fortunately, we're not rats in a maze at the mercy of some mad scientist who's making us run around and around and around until we collapse (well, maybe some bosses are like that, but that's a different post for a different day). The truth is, that while certainly not all of the stress in our lives is self-induced, some of it is, and that's particularly true in the case of technology-based stress. And the best way to reduce that stress is to make some changes in what how and when we connect.

In my next post,12 Steps to Recovery for Instant Communication Junkies, I offer some specific steps you can take to overcome the impulse to go for those fixes. But for now, here's a little impulse control test you should try.

1) Make a list of all the ways you're connected. Don't just include your electronic devices. Include all the ways you connect on those devices. For example: iPhone, laptop, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, etc. The length of the list may surprise you.

2) Highlight the ones that you believe you absolutely NEED to get your work and responsibilities accomplished. Notice I said NEED, not want or like. In the next post, you can check to see how accurate your assessment of needs is.

3) Take a vacation from the connections that are not highlighted. Other than some minor withdrawal symptoms, nothing serious should happen.

4) Begin thinking of ways you can reduce stress in your life by reducing your dependence on the highlighted connection sources.

Without question, the speed at which we can connect and access information these days is nothing less than amazing, but in the words of Mohandas Gandhi, There's more to life than increasing its speed. Wise words to live by.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved


Parts of this post were taken from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

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