Tomorrow is Spring Day, the official start to the summer season, but I bet many of you reading this don’t feel at all frisky. The year is flying by, and if you feel that this one seems faster and harder, read on – you’re not alone. A lot more people are feeling the effects of digital burn out.
Working long hours, and the stress and strain that usually accompanies a challenging job, is traditionally what causes people to burn out. However, digital burnout is something entirely new, and therefore not clearly understood. Nevertheless it is on the rise and because it stems from our virtual existence, we don’t see it coming and the result is devastating. Once it hits, taking some time off does not solve the problem. Some people end up in hospital, others fall into a dark hole for months. It is a new threat to human resources, for all businesses.
Each year, everyone senses that time is moving faster and faster, but this year has been exceptional: the word “punishing” gets most people nodding their heads in agreement, when use it to describe this year. A few wise souls have already taken a mid-year break and are coping better than the rest of us. Others are snatching an odd long weekend away, and bush breaks are popular because of their non-digital nature. The interesting thing is that when someone takes a mid year break or long weekend, it is no longer seen as an indulgence, as it might have been five years ago. In a digital age, a mid year holiday is now a necessity, and ‘digital detox’ the new buzzword.
We’ve reached an interesting tipping point. For years there has been a growing friction between our online and offline worlds. This has been a major source of domestic conflict – between spouses, or parents and their children – as one party is inevitably glued to an electronic device during mealtimes or in bed. This conflict between the online and offline worlds has not diminished, but we are finally coming to terms with the fact that we now have to exist in two parallel universes: a physical realm in which we are less and less present, and a virtual world where we spend most of our time. Recent research found that we now spend more time on our devices (on average 8 hours and 41 minutes) than we do sleeping.
This always on, always connected, lifestyle is what is fueling digital burnout. It has rewired our brains to be on a permanent multi-tasking mode. Our new default reaction to any spare time is to delve back into cyberspace. Just watch people at an airport, or any place where they are required to wait for any length of time: they will no doubt, be locked into their mobile devices. No one simply stares into space anymore.
What this sort of behaviour does is keep our minds hyper active. Once you’re on your Smartphone, you get tunnel vision. As soon as you’ve checked your emails, you’ll probably move onto social media, and if there is still time to kill, you’ll move onto reading something saved in an app or start playing a game. This not only blurs the boundaries between work and play, but we become less aware of the physical world around us. And therein lies the problem. When we do come back to our physical world, we discover that there are still things to do. Living in two worlds means that we actually do work doubly hard: if not physically then mentally. We now essentially work the equivalent of 24 months in 12, which is why a mid year break is so crucial.
In California’s Silicone Valley (where one could say our digital lives stem from) a new cyber, self-help industry is rising to curb digital burn out. Unusual conferences like Wisdom 2.0 and The Rise of the Buddhist Geek are springing up to help people, not only cope with their dual existence, but also to maintain a balance.
It’s also no coincidence that more and more articles are being published about a “new” Mindfulness Movement, helping people to stay present. Mindfulness is not new. It is a Buddhist practice that is thousands of years old, but is ironically becoming an important life skill in the digital age.
One of the most popular mindfulness exercises is eating a single raisin, in 6 slow steps: from observing it (as you would if you were an alien visitor), to smelling it, feeling its contours, rolling it in your mouth and then only biting and tasting it. For many this sounds absurd, but for those who have tried it, will tell you how surprisingly difficult it has become to focus on a single task. It is the lost art of omni tasking.
Test yourself. Try focusing – intently – on just one activity just for a few minutes. If you can’t, you’re probably a candidate for digital burn out. You have been warned!
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