If working from home has freed you from the tyranny of the morning commute, you may get to start the day in a more leisurely way than before, lingering in bed with the first tea or coffee of the day, and fondly reflecting on dashing to the bus stop in days of yore.
However, the chances are nowadays that cosy moment will be accompanied by a pocket-sized device that you reach for even before the coffee cup. After all, it’s in your hand from the moment you silence the alarm clock, which is one of its featured apps.
Which of the little red notification alerts on your homepage will grab your attention first? Has someone tagged you, liked a post, sent you a direct message? How about an email? If you have a widget on your home-screen that tells tales on you, which app does it suggest is ‘commonly used on first pickup?’ Maybe you’re driven by on-screen notifications, or perhaps you prefer to look directly at the pages of apps themselves.
Each little interaction, each little like, will feed you a tiny stab of dopamine, which provides a different kind of stimulation to the caffeine and tannins in your mug. It’s compelling and addictive, and just like that morning jolt of coffee, it creates its own escalating feedback loop, requiring ever higher numbers of RTs or DMs to trigger the same effect as time goes by. It lands squarely in your brain’s reward centre – which incidentally is the same place as chocolate and sex.
However, the inventor of Facebook’s Like button, Justin Rosenstein, publicly deleted the app (and others similar) from his phone, due to the psychological affects he was all too well aware of. The unintended consequences of ‘doom-scrolling,’ and the connection between mental health and overuse of social media apps is a matter of public record. Attention is the only non-scalable asset in the new economy, and the innovators in Silicon Valley will stop at nothing to keep you coming back more often, and spending more and more time looking at that screen.
This is bad enough for your friend stories and cat videos, but the trouble is, when it comes to the apps we use for work collaboration, the big trend is to make them more and more like our familiar social tools.
This is great from a usability perspective, as it minimises the learning curve and makes it easy to onboard new people. If you join a new team or organisation, there is a vast range of tools and interfaces they may be using – but it’s pretty strong odds you’ll immediately recognise certain features like emoji reactions, threaded conversations, usernames, @-tagging of specific individuals or themes, and so on. The app might have a different icon – which for some reason will probably be blue and white – but the way it points your attention to different content and lets you slip comfortably right into the conversation will feel natural and familiar.
Your team might use even Facebook Workplace, perhaps the ultimate in this social-workspace mash-up, or somebody may have hit on the terrible option of using consumer-based social apps for remote collaboration anyway, “Because everybody’s already got WhatsApp, right?” As a freelancer, obviously it’s my job to fit in with whatever the client already does, assuming they’ve hired me to write rather than to consult on their ecosystem. I have seen it all, including a cross-continental fintech start-up wholly reliant for team conversation on a single WhatsApp chat, largely filled with different styles of cat emojis. It’s just wrong, on so many levels.
This familiarity with apps helps you engage with new tools quickly, but it also helps you immediately import your personal default settings and expectations on an emotional level, with all the baggage this evokes.
Because of this convergence of appearance, functionality, and how we respond with our feelings, when we pick up our phones in the morning, our work instant messaging app can have just as strong a pull on our attention as our social media feeds. Look at all those red dots… how can you possibly resist a quick tap, even though your manager isn’t out of her pyjamas yet, and no one’s paying you for your time right now?
This combination of the psychological tricks of the attention economy and the convergence of business and social apps we use means there’s every danger of seriously eroding our boundaries, especially when it comes to tech and communications apps. Your personal placement on the integrator-separator spectrum discussed above will play a big part in your degree of comfort with this. That said, it’s vital to be aware of it and in control, rather than letting other people’s expectations or an installer’s default settings rule your life – and your phone – in this way.
Just as we talked about how you can stack habits together to add behaviours you want to cultivate to those you already do without thinking in the previous chapter, the app providers want to do this for you by hooking your actions to your everyday tools and behaviours. To deny them this victory, you need to act directly and specifically in the opposite direction.
This is an excerpt from Finding Your Edge: Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries When You Work From Home, book 2 in the Healthy Happy Homeworking series.