In early 1951, a few months before I entered the first grade at Larrabee Elementary School, the U.S. embarked on one of the most peculiar and troubling lines of research ever conducted. Sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, in a place known as the Nevada Proving Grounds, scientists began detonating nuclear devices. You know, just to see what would happen.
I first became aware of these blasts when Mrs. Plunk, the rather gruff principal (who ruled Larrabee not unlike General Patton ruled the Third Army) started projecting movie clips from the Nevada test site onto the cafetorium wall. When each nuclear display ended, Mrs. Plunk blew a whistle and we kids scattered about the room like—well, like kids in a nuclear-attack drill.
After careening about wildly and trying our best not to scream too loudly, we eventually found an empty spot on the edge of the floor, laid face down, and placed our hands tightly behind our necks. We needed to practice this ritual, Mrs. Plunk earnestly explained, in the off chance the Soviet Union—which was also testing nuclear bombs—tested them on Larrabee Elementary School.
One day, the newsreel contained even more haunting images than usual. This time, American soldiers, dressed in green fatigues, toting rifles, and holding their helmets tight to their heads, walked resolutely into a cloud of nuclear dust as the latest blast rolled across the desert. Would the guys be knocked down? Would the blast break their bones? Or, in the words of six-year-old Bobby Keefer who was lying face down next to me, “Would the soldiers wet their pants?”
If you were to view this same footage today you’d surely ask, “What were those scientists doing to those poor soldiers?” It’s not as if the dangers of radiation were a secret. Certainly not in 1951. And yet, the testing continued.
You can’t watch this “science-gone-mad” video without asking, “What similarly insane things are we doing today?” What modern invention have we wholly embraced, appears to have made our lives better, but is actually slowly killing us? In short, what “nuclear walk” are we taking today?
For some it’s plastic bottles. Don’t people realize that plastic slowly leaches Bisphenol A, which will eventually turn us all into helpless blobs of oozing flesh? Or how about holding cell phones close to our brain while they emit invisible death rays? That can’t be good, right?
Here is the latest trend that has me concerned (this week). If you took a vacation nowadays with a group of a dozen adults of differing ages and backgrounds, you would quickly note that they fall into two groups. First, you have those who set aside their worries, take their minds off their jobs, and throw themselves into the true spirit of vacationing. That’s Group One.
The people in Group Two offer up the occasional “Ooh!” or “Ah!” but they aren’t exactly living in the moment because they haven’t exactly unplugged from their jobs. They’re digitally linked to their offices—constantly fidgeting with their electronic devices, dashing off messages, and whispering underneath the tour guide’s lecture. Group Two folks are also highly stressed from trying to keep one foot in the moment and the other back at work.
My, how things have changed! Thirty years ago as I prepared to depart on my first overseas vacation, my boss kindly exhorted, “Please don’t phone us. Don’t even think about us. Disconnect, relax, and recharge your batteries. We’ll take care of whatever comes up.”
Contrast this thoughtful advice with the experience of two of my friends, Lisa and Jordan, who work as managers in a firm not far from my office. Lisa and Jordan’s bosses (like many of today’s leaders) don’t offer a comforting speech as their employees head out for a week of family fun. Quite the contrary. Lisa and Jordan’s bosses insist that they respond to phone calls, e-mails, and texts—24/7—especially during vacations.
Of course, much of this torture is self-imposed. There are advantages to being constantly connected to work. For one, you gain flexibility. You can take a mid-afternoon break to attend a niece’s soccer game and then make up for lost time by connecting to your office and working from home later that evening. In addition, if you stay continually tethered, you can also promptly respond to your phone calls, e-mails, and texts. You can be amazingly prompt and everyone wants that.
But what if you (dare I say it) unplugged from the grid once in a while? Would disconnecting for, say, an hour or so actually make your life better? In a word, yes. Consider the effects of constant interruptions. Every time you stop your current task, deal with an interruption, and then return, you place the original task from short- to long-term memory, put the new job into short-term memory, and then reverse the entire process to get back on task. Completing this conceptual lifting dozens of times a day creates stress, which (and the research on this is yet to be completed) just might lead to distress and all of its attendant health problems.
As if this weren’t bad enough, frequent interruptions can also lead to job dissatisfaction. Instead of working continuously for periods of an hour or more on a task that’s challenging and solvable (elements that career expert Mihály Csikszentmihályi insists contribute to job satisfaction), we purposely interrupt our flow, add stress, and make our jobs far less enjoyable.
There’s more. On those occasions where blurring the borders between work and home leads to additional time on the job (which it usually does) this too exacts a hefty toll. In a study recently conducted in England, those who labored 11 or more hours per day had a 67 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than their less-tethered 9-to-5 office mates.
Even if you don’t work extended hours, the mere act of remaining connected can be surprisingly damaging. Waiting to be interrupted—expecting to be interrupted—can trigger a stress response similar to that of actually being disturbed. And then, of course, there’s the whole problem of being interrupted, flitting off to the new task, and its impact on ADD. No matter your electronic devices, if you’re constantly switching tasks, it’s not long until you become less able to hold focus.
Obviously, with the release of each new innovation, there’s much to think about. As we invent and embrace new devices, we may not know the toll they’re taking on our mental, emotional, and physical health until it’s too late. Whether we’re setting ourselves up for job dissatisfaction, family tension, failing health, or ADD, one can only speculate. So, what’s a person to do?
As a starter, make the current practice of remaining constantly tethered and frequently interrupted part of your family and corporate dialogue. There’s no need to suffer quietly—you’re not alone. In fact, over two thirds of subjects recently surveyed in a poll conducted by the bureau of labor statistics suggested that they’ve experienced problems with their employer because of conflicts between their job and their duties as a parent. Much of this unresolved conflict is a natural consequence of today’s constant tethering.
So, speak up. Talk openly about the two-edged sword of innovation. What new invention or trend is working for you? What’s slowly killing you? Or better yet, how is an invention or trend that’s working for you, also killing you? Decide how and when you want to be connected and where and when you want to be interrupted. Make it a choice, not the natural extension of embracing what appears to be a helpful new tool.
And remember, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. You’re not required to take a vow of digital celibacy. You don’t have to chuck your devices; you just have to control them so they don’t control you. For instance, you can set your devices to notify you only at certain times; as opposed to the instant a message arrives. You can also negotiate with colleagues and bosses to watch your back while you vacation, disconnect, and recharge your batteries. Friends can and should be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Friends don’t let friends walk into a nuclear cloud.