It’s hard to break bad habits developed at work

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Yesterday I was setting out on my daily walk, during which I generally listen to audiobooks (I’m currently enjoying If It Bleeds, by Stephen King). As I was putting on my headphones I started thinking that I didn’t yet have a blog post topic for this week. I generally have a few ideas percolating but as yet hadn’t come up with anything I thought was compelling. I decided to take the highly unusual step of leaving my headphones and my ever-present iPhone behind to avoid being distracted. That would help me focus on topic generation, right? I didn’t get 50 feet from my front door before I realized that I already my idea! Once again, I’ve realized that I’m still adapting to leaving the workplace just eight months ago.

The tethering begins! 20 years of my life with smartphones

As has been widely reported, many of us spend a lot of time with our smartphones. As an early technology adopter, I’ve had one as long as they’ve been available. In fact, I had one of the very first: the Kyocera smartphone model 6035, shown in the picture above. It was released in 2001, meaning I’ve had a “pocket tether” for 20 years! It looks like not much more than a Palm Pilot PDA (for those who remember those), but it had text messaging and even a simple web browser! Early on it was definitely just a novelty and not something that “owned me” in any way. Given the cost of cellular data and the very slow speeds of the same, that’s pretty understandable. No one else had one at work, either. So there was no pull coming from that source – yet.

In 2006, two jobs later, I started using a company-supplied Blackberry for work. Things were fine using it that first year. I was still working in R&D and while having access to email at all times was convenient, I felt no compulsion to use it much outside of work. Besides, Blackberry apps weren’t very compelling barring a few simple games. However, once I moved into a new role where I was supporting customer collaborations using not-yet-released products – generally high risk and short timeline, things changed. I began checking my email and text messages much more often. My team was working at odd hours sometimes and I needed to stay in touch with them. My boss wanted to be kept up to speed. My habits shifted to manage these expectations and needs. I started doing a bit of work-related travel again, and the Blackberry made it convenient to keep in touch with my coworkers and customers. This began increasing once I left R&D for a Product Management role. I soon learned that this was only the beginning…

The iPhone and my downward spiral into bad habits

The real step-up didn’t happen until I got my iPhone. In 2010 I joined a startup biotech company leading a nascent customer support organization. We were doing some truly exciting work, but it was also early days for our technology. Not everything went to plan for our customers and my team was out there training them and fixing anything that went awry. I needed to stay in touch with my team, my customers, and the management of the company. As I my remit was global in nature, text messages and emails started coming at all times as well as on the weekend, and I was obliged to deal with them. Time is money and nothing takes a simmering situation to an explosion faster than someone having to wait “too long” for a response. I was one of the key links in the chain that had to stay intact, and my behavior only got worse as our customer base grew. Few things get you moving faster than messages from the CEO of your company, I can assure you!

In that job and in my final role before leaving the workplace, I traveled a lot – most of which was international. This coincided with the true explosion of social media. That combination meant my iPhone increasingly became a tool to keep in touch with family and friends. I was on planes, in airports, hotels, and taking other transit often. Apps like Facebook, Foursquare, and Instagram became ways to spend idle time as well as to share my experiences with my network. Combine that activity with all the texting and emailing I did for bona fide work purposes, and you have an awful lot of time staring at a small screen. It never seemed “bad” to me, but it was certainly something I spent a lot of hours doing. It makes sense, right? I generally traveled alone and that meant filling the hours and hours of space between work obligations.

Like many people, these behaviors spilled over into my personal life when I wasn’t traveling. My wife, Lorri and I had a number of conversations over the years about “being present” when I was at home, particularly in those years when our daughter was young. I only had weekends and evenings when I wasn’t traveling to spend time with her. She had a great point, of course! I found it next to impossible to put the emails and texts from work aside, but surely she was right. I tried some of the usual remedies like leaving the phone somewhere else during meals, and also attempted not to use it before going to bed – with mixed success, admittedly. My never-ending device time was having a negative impact on my family not to mention myself. Nothing prevents you from going to sleep (or causes you to wake early) like receiving a bad work message at bedtime! Surely these habits stopped when I ceased working eight months ago, right?

Post-workplace realizations

While I no longer have the work-related emails and texts to manage since retiring early – which is great! – I realize that I still spend far more time with my phone than I should. On the plus side, I do use more of that time productively than I used to – audiobooks have been really great for me as one example. However, I realized yesterday how far I still need to go. I’ve developed a bunch of bad habits and I need to change them. I previously turned off most app notifications and that’s been great. Facebook is no longer on my home screen so I can’t see the notifications count badge. That’s not enough. I can and should do more!

Walking without my phone yesterday I realized several important and perhaps obvious things. First, left with only my thoughts, my mind wandered lots of places during that hour walk. I didn’t just think about the blog, but also about some potential business ideas. I also thought about next steps with my new YouTube channel, Two Sides of FI. I also must admit that normally I don’t just use my phone to listen to audiobooks during my walk. I’m often receiving text messages while walking, many of which I answer. What a distraction! Couldn’t I just use Do Not Disturb mode? Of course I could. But I’d still be able to pick up the phone and Google something I saw on my walk, or take a photo and maybe even post it online. Maybe I can’t be “trusted” to have a phone during these times? (I can’t – yet.)

My plan of action

I’m going to stop listening to audiobooks during my walk – at least for now. The core issue is that I am still driven to fill empty space with “stuff”, rather than taking time to just think and experience the world around me. I don’t mean to suggest this is some profound realization I’m making for the world here. Many others have come to the same conclusion! But for me this is an important step in dealing with a long-standing issue. I’m so attached to technology given my nature, and I love having ready access to my phone. But I don’t need it at all times.

With this behavioral change, it will mean I’ll be delayed in responding to some things and I won’t be the first to share others. I know that will be OK and as a result, I’ll have more “technology downtime” in which I can think about more important things. I’d say “or think about about nothing at all”, but that’s not how my brain works. It’s a noisy place but that’s who I am and I’m comfortable with that. I do think my mind could benefit from a lack of competition with audiobooks, text messages, and apps sometimes. I didn’t think about this topic at all during my “9 Secrets to Success in Retirement” article but I’m realizing these changes may be essential to my own success and well being!

How about you? Have you come to similar realizations and done anything in response? I’m open to suggestions! They would surely be of help to me and others, so please share. Thanks!

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