Avoiding Burnout in a Mobile-Connected World

*Updated Monday, August 29


I really enjoyed being part of a panel conversation about “Avoiding Burnout in a Mobile-Connected World” presented by the Journalism and Women Symposium, Southern California (JAWS SoCal); Online News Association, Los Angeles (ONA LA); and Women, Action, Media (WAM! LA).

The main topic of the panel was “phone-life balance:” When do we turn off our smartphones, how do we implement strategies to put our phones away, and what are some standards we should both follow, and lead the way in making them the new norm for our over-connected society?

The irony is that even though we are working longer hours than ever, last year we each lost 11 days of productivity. So if we are losing those days anyway, shouldn’t we be using them to focus on our life outside of work, including our health, our families, our pets, volunteer work, travel, hobbies…?

Our values as a society need to shift when it comes to cheering overworking as a good thing. And a big part of that is changing the American workplace in general. It’s starts with each of us, but employers and those in leadership have a big responsibility to recognize the negative effects of burnout. For example, why is it a good thing to check emails at all hours of the day, night, and weekend, when it’s been shown that this makes you less productive? A new study makes it clear that not only does getting emails after work create stress and contribute to burnout, but simply anticipating emails has the same effect.

Rather than looking down on those who do not check email after hours, we should look down on those who do, since it’s counter-productive, inefficient and simply not strategic. There are other ways to communicate, after all, if something urgent does come up — like actual phone calls. Why did we all decide, suddenly, that emails are the only way to go? It isn’t lazy not to continuously check email. It’s smart.

My main message at the panel was, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If we set rules for ourselves and our homes, and do our best to follow them as much as possible, we’ll go a long way without have to be too hard on ourselves.

My #1 rule that I shared during the panel is not to use phones when I am waiting— anywhere, be it in a line at a coffee shop, waiting for a friend to arrive somewhere, or even at a red light (yes, we all do it). That makes a huge difference in reducing stress and just allowing myself to wait for a few seconds or minutes without needing to do work or be connected.

Then, right after that, is “turning off” time. To be honest, this is the rule I break the most, but I try every evening to stop using by phone (and lap tops/iPads of course, and therefore check email/be online) after around 8pm. This also goes to what Arianna Huffington said at The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this year:

“No one with even a remotely interesting job can finish everything they want to do in one day. We need to acknowledge that there are going to be incompletions, but the day is done.”

My third rule (and therefore tip for anyone interested) is to have a “screen-free” weekend every few weeks or months to really unplug. It becomes a habit to reach for our phones, and when you leave them at home or decide not to use them for a whole day or two, you’ll be surprised at how liberated you feel–after the initial twitching.

See, the catch-22 is that a sign of being depleted from the multi-tasking that has come in the digital age with the rise of smartphones is the mindless scrolling we do on Facebook and social media at the end of the night, according to a recent study. So when we over-use our phones, we then use them even more! We have to constantly fight against this, so that our smartphones can be the powerful tools for our careers they have the potential to be, rather than devices that drain us and disconnect us from ourselves, our family and loved ones, and the present moment (ironically).

Some background…

Image credit CassandraRules on Twitter

I wrote about this photo in “Forget Your Phone at Home — On Purpose” earlier in the spring.  And one of my first blog posts here last summer was about The Screen-Free Weekend Challenge.


These photos shared by NBC News at the unveiling of Pope Francis are such a powerful snapshot of the problem. And here’s a similar screenshot from CNN:


I took this photograph at Fenway Park in Boston this June, heartbroken at the site of this young girl playing a game on her phone while at a live summer baseball game in America’s most beloved ballpark:

Michelle Chahine Sinno Photography Fenway Park

It’s up to us to set the standards…

I recommend Arianna Huffington’s latest 2 books for more reading and tips on finding balance in a mobile-connected world:

And these 3 articles:

A Screen-Free Weekend Challenge

I vowed to go screen-free this past long holiday weekend. I made the decision last Wednesday feeling the need to make a holiday a holiday. A real, unplugged one. My rules for a digital detox were simple:

  1. Use my phone only to make calls. Since it’s my primary camera, I could use it take photos, but I set a limit of 5 a day. (A big victory: I didn’t take a single photograph Friday through Sunday! Read my essay for The Huffington Post on this issue: Put Your Camera Down. Now. And Your Smartphone Too).
  2. That meant no checking email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or anything else I might be tempted to check, even if it counts as “fun” not work.

I even left my phone at home on Saturday, knowing that if anyone really needed to reach me while I was at the (wonderful!) 4th of July Hollywood Bowl celebration, they could call my husband’s phone.

It was definitely liberating. In some moments, there was a slight feeling of emptiness, of having nothing to do. We’re so used to looking down at our phones every free minute we have, even if we’re in line at Starbucks. What happened to just looking around and letting our mind wander? That’s supposed to be the recipe for creativity after all.

Going screen-free for a long holiday weekend put into perspective how silly our attachment to our smartphones can be. We don’t need them as much as we think we do. 

I first became conscious of my over-dependence on my phone when I read this piece on how everybody should, and could, go “screen-free” for a week, with tips and advice to do so. The tip that resonated the most with me was not to look at my phone while “waiting,” whether it was at a grocery story check-out line, a coffee shop or at a red light (I know! I admit it was a bad habit.) Once I made the resolution not to do that, I became aware of just how much I looked at my phone during any spare minute I had. It was freeing, and relaxing, not to.

I learned another great tip from Gretchen Rubin, author of one of my favorite books, “The Happiness Project” (more on that very soon). She visited Santa Monica this spring during the tour for her new book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” During the event that I attended, she spoke about having “quitting time,” after which she didn’t look at her phone until the next day.

Rubin said she leaves her phone inside the pocket of her coat in the closet, or somewhere just as out-of-the-way; not checking her phone before bed or first thing in the morning—allowing for a grace period after waking up before she checks her device. Arianna Huffington has mentioned this too (more on her book “Thrive” also coming very soon!).

After hearing her talk, I started to leave my phone in the living room at night, or in the pocket of my purse when I get home in the evening. I realized that if anyone needs me, I’ll hear it ring! It don’t need to have it right next to me at all times.

To be sure, smartphones are great tools, both for work and play. I personally enjoy scrolling through Instagram, reading my Twitter lists and taking photos. It’s also the main way I read The New York Times and news articles. But I don’t need to be doing that ALL the time. In fact, I now know that it’s important to go out of my way to create time during the day when I specifically don’t do all those things. If you’re out to dinner at any restaurant, you’ll notice often that more people are looking at their phones than at each other. That makes me want to put my phone away even more.

It’s worth noting that even Steve Jobs, arguably the inventor of the modern smartphone, restricted screen time for his children.

I find that managing my screen time is a very important component of finding the right work-lfe balance. When I don’t make the conscious effort to put my phone away, I feel more stressed and anxious, because I feel like I am always “on.”

It’s not just smartphones, of course. It’s also about not lingering on my lap top too long in the evenings, or watching too much TV, which takes up free time, in the mornings and nights before and after work, that could be used for other hobbies, pursuits and conversations. My husband (henceforth referred to as N on this blog) and I have become better about not watching TV just to watch it, but enjoying a few good shows together. (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart–yes! We’re mourning the end–and these days True Detective, Ballers, the Brink, and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.)

I challenge you to choose one weekend, any weekend, to try this screen-free challenge.

More importantly, I challenge you to:

  • Try out not checking your phone while “waiting,” allowing for some empty moments when you’re mind is resting.
  • Give yourself some time before bed and once you wake up without your phone every day.

That way, we can use our smartphones (and the corresponding digital and social media world), with all their advantages, in full force during the day. But we can also give ourselves quiet moments throughout for our minds to rest and to be fully present wherever we are, and time at night and in the morning to breathe and be with ourselves, friends and families.

Screen-Free #MorningsWithMinjay.


Photo credit Victor Hanacek, Picjumbo.