Work smarter digitally

We’re hearing more and more voices proclaiming that the new technology is making us stupider and our memories poorer. But the problem isn’t the technology itself — it’s how we use it, says psychologist and author Siri Helle.

Born: 1991
Background: Psychologist, author and lecturer, passionate about spreading knowledge about what creates a healthy, meaningful life. Works in a general psychiatry clinic in Stockholm.
Occupation: Recently published the book Smarter than your Phone  
(Natur och Kultur, 2019).

You just meant to take a quick glance at your Instagram flow — and suddenly you’ve spent 20 minutes scrolling through nature photos of New Zealand. Now you just want to check out the news. Sound familiar? Sometimes it can be hard to get the job done when your email keeps dinging and your phone keeps vibrating. Maybe you check your inbox several times an hour, even though there are rarely any urgent mails.

“The human brain likes quick rewards, and that’s just what you get when you go in and read a few emails. Working with your inbox open is like having a bag of candy on your desktop,” says Siri Helle, psychologist and author of the book Smarter than your Phone.

In the book, she gives concrete tips on how to manage your phone or computer to make your tech work for you instead of slowing you down. We all know how distracting apps can be. They’re designed to make us stay as long as possible, and some researchers liken our behavior to an addiction. There’s even a new word for the stress we feel when we don’t have our phone nearby: “nomophobia”—“no mobile phobia”.  
 
When smart phones were new, people lined up around the block to pick up the latest model, but now the tides have turned and a backlash has arisen, Helle says. News articles warn us that our phones shrink our brains and dull our memories. Commentators write articles about how harmonious they’ve become after quitting Facebook. “I think the debate needs to be a bit more nuanced,” Helle says. “It’s not the technology itself that’s the problem, but how we use it.”

Many studies show that our phones make us happier because we can main tain relationships with people we care about, the new technology allows us to network with colleagues around the world, and we can learn things quickly through online courses. Digitalization has radically changed the way we work in just a few decades. Considering how fast this has happened, it’s no wonder that we haven’t managed to find good strategies for using these tools, Helle says.

She thinks it’s important to establish clear rules at the workplace regarding how available you’re really expected to be: How quickly do you need to answer an email? When is it okay to contact a colleague who’s on vacation? Some workplaces have already established a digital working environment policy, and France actually has a new law that says that employers can’t require employees to be available by email or text after working hours. 
 
Turning off email notifications can be another step towards working smarter. That way you don’t get a ding when messages drop into your inbox and it’s easier to decide for yourself when it’s a good time to check your messages. Because it’s a lot more efficient if you don’t switch back and forth between tasks. “We believe we’re doing two things at once when we multitask, but it’s an illusion,” Helle says. “Because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time, we’re constantly shifting gears. That takes energy and results in poorer performance.”

“In a boundaryless work life, we have to learn to set our own boundaries,” Helle writes in Smarter than your Phone. Studies show that people have different preferences as to how we divide up our work and leisure time. There are two strategies: segmenting and integration. Segmenting means that you have a clear division between work time and free time. Integration means that the boundary is more fluid. You may go to the gym in the middle of the workday and then spend a few hours working in the evening on the couch. 
 
“Many people appreciate the freedom to be flexible, but the integration method is harder to manage,” Helle says.

There are also new expectations for us to be available 24/7. Many people take their work phone home with them, and surveys show that over 50% of Swedes read work emails while on vacation. “In the long term it’s bad for our health if we don’t get time to recuperate. It’s like a battery that you never recharge.” 
 
If you have the same phone at work as you have at home, but don’t want to think about work during off hours, there are certain settings you can configure on your phone.

“You can move work emails to a separate folder that isn’t on your home screen,” Helle says. “That way you’re not constantly reminded of work every time you open your phone. If you don’t have separate work and personal email accounts, you can create separate inboxes, so you can check your personal emails without also having to see work-related messages.” 
 
And then there are all those beautiful nature photos of New Zealand. What does Helle herself do at work to avoid picking up her phone all the time?

“I put it as far away from me as I can, at the other end of the room, and have all app notifications switched off.”