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“Even when he’s here, he’s not here”: The impact of 24/7 electronic availability on our personal lives.

16Oct 2006

This past week, two wives from two unrelated families used the exact same words to describe to me (and their husbands) a challenge they are experiencing in their homes: “Even when he is here, he is not ‘here’.” They went on to describe the phenomenon that has become a culture-wide struggle – the expansion of the world of work into our personal lives and the observation that, even though their husband may be home with the family, he frequently is not mentally or emotionally ‘present’.

[NOTE: One of the ironies of being a psychologist is the ability to observe and comment on issues I haven’t fully resolved in my own life!]

With the explosion of the use of cell phones, Blackberries (or their equivalents), and access to business email from almost anywhere, individuals can literally work 24/7 from multiple locations – home, car, airports, hotels, vacation resorts. This obviously isn’t “new” (that is, the issue has been around for several years), and the topic has been written about numerous times. A book was written in 2001 giving practical suggestions for dealing with the issue, research is being conducted on possible “techno addicts”, and the problem has even reached the legal system, where employees may be able to sue their employer for being expected to be available 24/7.

But the penetration into our society and families has become huge. The challenge has moved from early technogeeks and business executives on the cutting edge, to virtually anyone (even psychologists).

Obviously, there are many practical steps that each of us can take:

*turn off the device (e.g. during meals, after certain hours)

*structure a “no contact” time each day (“I will not be available between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and each week (Saturday noon to Sunday noon).

*only check your emails one time each evening

*set a decision-making structure – that you will only accept calls or look at emails from certain individuals (hopefully, three or less people) after regular work hours.

However, it has been my experience that these strategies only work in a limited way for many businesspeople unless other issues are also addressed.

Probably the most important point to address is: what are your beliefs about your need to be available 24/7? Is it really a “requirement” by your employer? (If you are self-employed like I am, talk to your boss.) What are you afraid of missing? What is “critical” or “important” (as in, “I need to take this important call”)? What would happen if you didn’t, or if you got back to them in an hour (or tomorrow morning)?

I think, both from personal experience and from observing others, that much of the drive to be accessible 24/7 is our own desire for information, involvement and influence. It is often from a self-inflated sense of importance. And it can also be driven by fear – fear of missing an opportunity, fear of upsetting others, the fear of others “getting ahead” of us.

Much of this issue harkens back to what Stephen Covey described as the difference between what is important versus the urgent. If we are not careful, the urgent can take over our lives and leave little (or nothing) left for the important – activities such as personal time, time with family and friends, exercise, leisure.

If you are a brave soul, talk to your spouse, kids and friends, and get their feedback on how they see you functioning in this area. How much do they experience an intrusion of your electronic availability in their relationship with you?

And if you are really brave, ask them: “When I am here with you, do you feel like I am really ‘here’?”

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