Email, Twitter and the always-on lifestyle: Today’s double-edged sword

What happens when "Out Of Office" becomes meaningless?

Always-on Lifestyle

Today, I made a choice. I made a choice to carve out a chunk of time to write this article, but I did so at the expense of communication. I very intentionally decided to cast my eyes in the other direction by ignoring a deluge of inbound inquiries, and to be honest, I’m still unsure as to whether it was the right decision. Five years ago, I might have suggested that those employed in the digital industry would understand where I was coming from, but today, I’m more inclined to believe that everyone in a developed country would get the gist. This is the era where personal time becomes a relic, silence is the new distraction, and 24/7 expectations bleed from petrol stations into every possible aspect of your life. Consider this: how many requests are you presently ignoring by taking the time to read these words?

Brain vs. internet

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It’s a strange sensation, the prescient notion of recognizing exactly what you’re missing out on, what you’re deliberately ignoring, and what you simply cannot bring yourself to address. I grew up in a generation where the internet was available as soon as I could understand how to spell http, and the constant and continual availability of unlimited knowledge has no doubt benefited me. My entire livelihood has relied on the internet, and in turn, digital communications. But what’s curious is how society’s expectations have shifted as the internet’s fabric has quietly woven itself into the fabric of what we call life. There is no longer an excuse for not knowing something within 10 seconds — if you aren’t adept enough to Google something, you aren’t fit for this era. Similarly, I’ve witnessed a transformation in society as it pertains to the expectations of human interaction. If you’re offline, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. Or, so has become the underlying belief.

You could argue that it began with the invention of the voicemail, or the widespread adoption of email. Particularly with the latter, it has become perfectly acceptable to bombard someone’s personal inbox with absolutely anything at absolutely any time without any semblance of permission. And we all love it. The same courteous expectations of yesteryear — things like having enough tact to not butt into someone’s ongoing conversation or holding your petty requests until after someone’s maternity leave — do not apply to the digital side of things. One’s inbox not only has a perpetual “OPEN 24/7” placard on it, but it’s adorned with one of those neon-filled “HOT NOW” signs that makes even the most devoted trainer break untold traffic laws in order to wheel themselves into a Krispy Kreme storefront. For a while, maintaining a sane inbox wasn’t terribly difficult. Then, there was Facebook. And Twitter. And Google+. And Xbox Live. And new software that allows you the almighty privilege of logging into 19 new communication avenues at once. It’s almost comical to think that people used to respect the Away Message.

Stay with me, now

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I’ll be straight with you: I voluntarily signed up for all of those services mentioned above, and then I signed up for a few more. There are presently so many ways to contact me that I could not possibly list them all off at gunpoint, and indeed, entire companies have been born with the sole goal of taming one’s digital life. (See: SaneBox, Boomerang, Taskforce, Right Inbox, AwayFind, etc.) But it’s all just a facade. You can hope to cleverly rob Peter to spend more time replying to Paul, but in the end, most humans are going to find it too much to muster. In the half-hour or so that I’ve been pecking away at this, I’ve received a dozen direct notifications through various services, and I’m the type of person that feels compelled to at least consider addressing them.

Taken to the extreme, it’s safe to say that we now live in a world where there is no downtime. There is simply time where you are actively addressing communications aimed at you, and time where you are allowing communications aimed at you to accumulate. Even the hours at which you’re at rest are no longer holy. It is not socially acceptable to disregard communications received during your bedtime — after all, the internet has no time zone. Ironically enough, features such as Apple’s ‘Do Not Disturb’ have made it even easier for fellow Earthlings to get in touch with you. Pre-DND, one might hold back on the urge to phone you up at 1:00AM for fear of the ring waking you; now, there’s the expectation that your handset will remain silent while the call goes to voicemail.

The lining is silver

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I’d caution you not to determine that any of the above is an act of kvetching. I assure you, it is not. The flipside to being continuously available is that you’re no longer expected to be available in any one specific form. Granted, blacksmiths still aren’t able to routinely telecommute, but for a staggering amount of people in the workforce, there’s little reason to be available in the flesh. Sure, you’re expected to be available to answer any given call and respond to any given email, but there’s a certain beauty to having the tools to communicate from the ends of the Earth. “Out of office” no longer means what it used to, given that an office can be repositioned and redefined in an instant, but for me, it’s a trade worth making.

I’ve worked a 40-hour week in a cubicle and an 80-hour week across a variety of countries; I wouldn’t recommend either, if I’m honest, but the challenge going forward is to strike a new balance based on the new realities of availability.

In my own experience, I’ll confess to finding it difficult to relax. The fear of missing the digital version of a high-five — or, should I say, the digital version of leaving someone hanging — is very real. For me, it’s remarkably humbling to be reached out to, be it in person or through any of the digital means that are readily available. You’re never more grateful for limitless methods of contact than when you’re looking for work, and from a networking standpoint, the accessibility that we enjoy today is a godsend. I offer little in the way of a solution to those who feel inundated by contacts outside of this: you have to know when to politely say “no,” and as someone with equal power to contact, you should carefully consider when and how you reach out.

Oh, and to the 14 people / companies / robotically-sent newsletters that I’ve temporarily pushed aside while completing this article, you have my sincerest apologies.

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