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Is There an App for Getting My Life Back?

A recent article in The Atlantic states that nearly half of Facebook users aged 18-34 check their Facebook just minutes after waking up; 28 percent even before getting out of bed. An informal survey with my university students finds that it’s the last thing many of them do at night before going to sleep (with a good number also checking in periodically throughout the night). According to late-night comic Jimmy Fallon, Facebook is working on a feature that allows your friends to see your location. “Though I think everyone knows,” he joked, “if you’re on Facebook, you’re at work.” The Atlantic also presents a number of studies that show correlations between Facebook use and loneliness. Neurotic and lonely individuals tend to spend more time on Facebook each day than people who aren’t.
Before you start searching for a “dislike” button in response to that, consider that maybe there’s something to those studies and that you (and 15 of your friends) might benefit from a little PTO, or predictable time off. That’s the central message of Leslie A. Perlow’s Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work.
If you were born in the digital age, you might not know this. But there was a time – long, long ago – when the average person actually went home after work, ate dinner, watched a bit of TV, and then didn’t go back to work until the next day. Sure, there were the overachievers out there. The ad execs, and company men who sometimes took work home with them, stayed late to meet a deadline, or entertained out-of-town clients in the manner of the latest episode of Mad Men. But for most of us, not working when the workday ended was the norm. That was before the digital age. Before work life became your entire life, in which Facebooking, Twittering, Smartphoning, and IPading became indispensable to keeping up and staying ahead.
But is it really making us better workers? Does 24-hour accessibility, or sleeping with your Smartphone, really make you more productive? According to Perlow, probably not.
Perlow is a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. With a co-researcher, she decided to conduct a simple experiment with a high-powered team from the elite Boston Consulting Group.
The idea behind PTO is that team members create a plan for incremental changes in the way they work together that ultimately benefits the company and its employees. Perlow explains that we have come to believe that “responsiveness” in our work life means being perpetually accessible. We want our bosses, co-workers, and clients to perceive us as being available to address important matters; that we are committed, in fact, and on the job. But the truth is that most after-hours phone calls and emails are not urgent and could easily wait until the next day. And yet, to maintain the perception, we respond. That leads to things like email overload and the activity of work eats up more and more of our time.
PTO isn’t just about time off, though. It’s about organizing, collaboratively, with a team to become more effective. When you constrain the available work time (by going home, for example) it means you have to get the work done in the time allotted. It’s the inverse of Parkinson’s Law, first formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay on bureaucracies. Basically, Parkinson’s point was that work expands to fill the available time. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. According to Perlow, Smartphone and Blackberry culture actually reduces productivity. Adopting PTO as part of your teamwork not only means work gets done, it gets done well. Your team not only survives, it thrives.
Perlow points out that people involved in PTO are more passionate about their jobs and that the clients they work with are more satisfied. That’s what the Boston Consulting Group found out. It’s just a matter of working collaboratively to change work habits and making sure everyone, including your Smartphone, gets some time off. FBN

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