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Turning off Your Smartphone: More Stress Or Less?

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When it comes to creating stress, smartphones are near the top of the list. Although these ubiquitous devices put the world at our fingertips, and seemingly free us from the shackles of the office, they also invade our lives and psyches. More and more frequently these days, people have two modes -- on-the-job and on-call. And as smartphones permeate every part of our lives, the line between these two modes becomes increasingly blurred.

Over the last six years, I surveyed thousands of managers and professionals in high-pressure, demanding jobs in 84 countries on six continents -- investment bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and management consultants; people in advertising, marketing, high tech, and nonprofits; workers in Fortune 500 companies and start-ups. I spoke to several hundred of them directly, asking the same questions: How much were they working? How much pure, guilt-free time off did they have? Not the lucky accidental hours away from work without calls or emails, but pre-planned hours, when they could disconnect completely from professional responsibilities without experiencing that nagging urge to keep checking their electronic devices.

Seventy percent of them admitted to checking their smartphone each day within an hour after getting up, and 56 percent did so within an hour before going to bed. Weekends offered no reprieve either: Forty-eight percent checked over the weekend, even on Friday and Saturday nights. Vacations? Forget about it. More than half checked continuously while they were supposedly getting away from work. And, yet when asked about their reaction if they were to misplace their wireless device for an extended period of time, 44 percent rated their anxiety the most extreme.

Executives I teach at Harvard Business School provide some context. While most perk up at the idea of more time off, they quickly point out how impractical that is in their day-to-day lives. If we refrain from emailing, colleagues will still email us - and we don't want to let them down. If we stop working long hours and making ourselves available, others will likely speed past us on the career ladder. It's impossible to know when the client or customer will call, and what the demands of managing across time zones will present. And let's face it, when the cell phone sounds, few of us have the mental fortitude to ignore it.

It's easy for us to convince ourselves that the problem is an individual addiction, or at the other end of the spectrum, to blame the culture in which we live. While both are clearly part of the problem, the real answer lies somewhere else. Immersed in the small groups in which we interact most frequently, we are our own worst enemy. When I email you late at night and you respond, I come to expect that you will regularly respond at that late hour. Meanwhile, you derive some satisfaction from your diligence. This vicious cycle may well go on into the wee hours of the night. Together, we perpetuate and amplify expectations of each other and ourselves, making our own and our colleagues' lives more intense, more overwhelming, more demanding, and less fulfilling than they need to be.

What better time to spotlight this tension around turning off than during National Stress Awareness Month? To those who think they've lost control of the situation or that ownership of this issue is a pipe dream, I'm here to tell you that together and cooperatively with the people with whom you work most closely, you can take back your life and start controlling how you work. Better yet, you can actually improve the work process itself such that your organization benefits, too!

When small groups set a goal to turn off their phones for discrete periods of time (what I call "predictable time off") and band together to make it happen, including a weekly discussion of their work process and their progress in achieving their goal, the results go far beyond the discrete unit of predictable time off. People start to think and talk seriously about how they can work smarter and make changes that lead to significant gains in work efficiency and effectiveness, as well as individual well-being. When embraced collectively, turning off can be made not only stress-free, but a benefit for you and your organization.

Leslie Perlow is the Konsuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of the forthcoming book Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Available May 29 from Harvard Business Review Press).

For more by Leslie Perlow, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.

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