Turning off the Tech |Taylor Turner, MD
I turned off all the notifications on my iPhone—except texts and voicemails. For those of you who sleep at night with 3,000 unread emails, it may not help. But for the rest of us, it makes a difference. I worried about new emails, or what else I missed. Was something urgent sitting in my inbox? I got used to it, and now I read my email when I want to read email.
What does this have to do with burnout? When the technology in our pockets or on our desks is taking our free time from us, we’ve lost autonomy. And autonomy correlates with burnout, job satisfaction, turnover, and job performance. Is the technology you use giving you more autonomy? Absolutely not. EMR systems mandate we document in a particular way, in a particular order, using patterns and systems designed by others—others who don’t care for our patients, understand our schedules, or have any idea how our individual minds process data and determine care plans. We are forced to document specific phrases or findings, regardless of their clinical relevance.
Autonomy at work is a big issue, but we can improve our personal autonomy by making the technology in our lives work for us. First, remember technology is not neutral. Every app, website, and platform is competing for your time. Netflix doesn’t start the next episode automatically because that’s what you want, it’s to keep you off Facebook or Google. When Blackberry created push notifications it was only for email, back when email was a new way to communicate, not another chore. Now every app will sound an alarm, send you a message, and leave a little marker telling you there’s something to be done. Why? Because the economy of the web is driven by advertising, and advertisers want your eyes on their ads.
Currently, you can’t get specific notifications only when your spouse or your boss emails you, so you have to find other ways to make the system work for you in other ways. The first step is deciding how you want to work. How important are your emails? Does really urgent news come via text or phone call? When do you have to respond? Are there hours or days when you don’t want to be available? What are the applications that you want to interrupt you, and how do you want to be interrupted? Who are the people who get to interrupt you at home, or at work, or at the grocery store? The devices we carry are often seen as time-saving, or making life easier, but again, this is not neutral. They make certain things easier, and certain things faster, but unless we’re careful, which parts of our lives are made easier will be determined by others.
Give it a try this week. Maybe get real extreme and leave your phone behind. I left mine in my car last week. I wasn’t trying to get away or disconnect. Mostly I was worried about dropping it. I’m an iPhone purist: no case, no cover. But what if I needed to calculate the price per ounce? What if someone broke into my car and stole it? What if someone needed me?
Nothing happened, of course.
I bought some food, I said hello to strangers in the aisles (this is Alabama, so people are nice and that’s how we do things), and I didn’t drop my phone.
Additional resources on autonomy and technology:
- Overload, autonomy, and burnout as predictors of physicians’ quality of care
- Disturbing Trends in Physician Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance
- Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them
Taylor Turner, MD, is a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.