Why Our Tech Obsession Might Be a Work Obsession

“If you signed up in 2008 to get a smartphone, you didn’t think what you were signing up for was taking your work home with you every single night.”

Nir Eyal is an entrepreneur, educator, and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. He recently joined David Burkus, award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual, for a Heleo Conversation on the intersection between technology obsession, work-life balance, and challenging assumptions in order to change behavior.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.

Nir: When companies call me and say, “We want to make our product habit-forming,” about half the time I say, “Sorry, you don’t meet the test. Your product will never become a habit.” There is a list of criteria around what even has potential to become a habit-forming product. That doesn’t mean that they need to go out of business; there’s lot of businesses that are very successful without forming a habit.

Do you [ever] look at a company and say, “Look, your workplace just isn’t going to be engaging. You’re not going to get high performance from people, this is just a standard, run-of-the-mill, do your job, go home, kind of gig.” Or do you think every company has the potential to become a more engaging workplace?

David: There are definitely certain types of work that are never going to be the type of thing that kids at seven years old dream about growing up to be one day. Even inside that, you can find companies that do things to build the right workplace.

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From the organizational behavior standpoint, we have the father of scientific management, Frederick Taylor. He came up with all of these ideas about how to manage a factory, how to manage people who have to do the same repetitive task over and over. But most people don’t do that type of work anymore [and so] Taylorism has become this boogeyman: “Boring, dull, repetitive jobs are ones [where] scientific management still works, but [for knowledge work] we need to use lots of autonomy and talk about a great workplace.”

Even in the industrial work setting, however, there are places that are creating a communal feeling, giving more autonomy and empowerment to the individual employee, creating great workplaces.

Nir: The workplace has the advantage of, worst case scenario, at least people have the ability to form community, to build relationships. Even if the job itself sucks, maybe the saving grace is that the people care about you and you care about them.

David: Right, or that we take responsibility for each other. It used to be in the Taylor days that there was labor and then there was management, and management’s job was to tell labor what to do. The idea that we’re all in it together and we collectively will figure it out, they’re not new concepts, but they’re kind of new in the world of management.

Nir: How much do you think is autonomy? Think about the Hawthorne effect, where everything that’s supposed to improve workplace productivity somehow does. The Hawthorne effect is just that people will perform at a higher level when they feel like they’re being watched. What do you think about that?

David: The Hawthorne effect, I think, is really a matter of connectedness. These people were varying a bunch of different things and productivity kept going up because they felt like you were paying attention, like you cared, like there was a connection.

Workplaces often give these feedback surveys out to employees or customers that say, “We want to hear from you.” That only works if you then say, “Okay, we’ve heard from you, and here’s how we’re changing.” It’s a feeling that we’re listening to each other and making changes based on what you need, that the people in charge care about you.

Nir: It’s feeling that I’m not being controlled; I’m exerting some kind of influence.

David: Exactly. We were on this trend where the more frequent communication we had, the better people could collaborate. Now it seems like we’ve hit some sort of overload. Email, social media, and Slack seemed so habit-forming, and now it feels like we need to break these habits in order to focus again.

If I’m reading your work right, these are natural things that happen because of the product, but how do we solve it?

“We haven’t figured out this critical question: is the technology serving you, or are you serving it?”

Nir: We live in a world where there are so many great products and services that sometimes they’re hard to put down. The miracle of the age is that so much of this is good, free, and readily accessible. In many ways, it’s a blessing, but Sophocles said, “Nothing great enters the life of mortals without a curse.”

This happens with every revolution. Now, for the first time in history, more people die of an excess of calories than a shortage of calories, more people die of diseases of excess than they do of starvation. That’s the problem of agriculture. The industrial revolution gave us mechanization—nobody wants to go back to the age before the steam engine—but now we have problems from human-caused pollution.

Now we see this with the information age, that the downside of all these products that are so good at connecting us instantly is that attention has become a scarce resource. That’s the price. We are the guinea pig generation that had to learn these technologies. Our kids and grandkids won’t think it’s all that amazing, they’ll adapt to it, but for us it’s still very novel, and we haven’t figured out how to put it in its place.

We haven’t figured out this critical question: is the technology serving you, or are you serving it? The boogeyman of my industry is B.F. Skinner, and Skinner boxes that make people press buttons all day long. But the reality is that this stuff isn’t coercion. It’s not making people do things they don’t want to do, it’s how they get people to do things they do want to do.

For the most part, these things are great. But when people say, “This is going a little bit overboard,” they can put it in their place. I find it much easier for people to get their personal technology under control—meaning Facebook, Snapchat. There are people who are actually addicted to technology as opposed to just habituated, [but] most people can put it away. Just like when we walk by a bakery and see some amazing desserts, we don’t blame the baker and say, “Why did you make that delicious dessert? It’s so hard for me to resist.” Most people moderate their behavior.

The tricky part is that they can’t put away the work emails, the work Slack messages. It’s not that people are addicted to the technologies, people are addicted to work. The constraints of this 24/7 work life are taking a toll.

“If you signed up in 2008 to get a smartphone, you didn’t think what you were signing up for was taking your work home with you every single night, but that’s what we’ve started to do.”

David: What is it about work email that makes it so addictive? If you signed up in 2008 to get a smartphone, you didn’t think what you were signing up for was taking your work home with you every single night, but that’s what we’ve started to do. It used to be that there was a tier of employee that was so on-demand, we had to give them a Blackberry. They would joke and call it a CrackBerry. We should have thought of that as a warning.

Do you think we’re actually addicted to working, so even if we did away with work email, we would still have this sense of needing to be working to be creating value, 24/7?

Nir: Let’s say that tomorrow you win the lottery and win $20 million. You no longer need to spend a day in the office ever again. Do you still use Slack? Do you still use SharePoint or Sales Force? No, you stop using all that shit, because the only reason you’re using that is because the boss wants you to. Most people won’t say, “Oh my God, I can’t leave my job because I love using SalesForce so much.” It’s not the software, it’s the burdens of the job. It’s, “My boss is expecting me, my clients are expecting me. We’re a service business, we have to constantly respond all the time.”

That’s the real source of the problem. The tools make the problem worse, but if you take out one of the variables, you’ll see that people very quickly will stop using this technology had it not been for the workplace. That’s not the case in the consumer web, when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. People generally like to use those products, so that’s another category where the product itself has perhaps a greater influence. When it comes to enterprise products, a lot of people, if they had $20 million dropped on them, would never check that work email account again.

David: If I had $20 million, I definitely would still use Facebook, but only to tell everyone that I won the lottery.

When we look at the research into what actually creates increases in performance, my mind goes to the K. Anders Ericsson study around deliberate practice. Everybody loves to oversimplify it and say it’s about 10,000 hours. One of the other findings was that the people who achieved world-class level mastery also slept more than your average person. They only worked for about 90 minutes at a time, and then they took a break.

We’re realizing that less hours working means that the hours you are working are more valuable. In a 24/7 always-on culture, does it take top-down leadership saying, “Go home, be with your wife, kids, friends and loved ones”? Or is there something we can do on an individual level to protect our swim lane so that we only work a certain amount of hours?

Nir: Some companies have the luxury to do this, while other companies perhaps don’t. Certain industries would actually be better served if they dialed back. There’s a great book called Sleeping with Your Smartphone. The author, Leslie Purlow, did this study at the Boston Consulting Group. She gave them a simple challenge: “What would we have to do to give each team member one night off?” A lot of the consultants in the firm said, “That would be impossible. We’re in the service business; our customers expect 24-hour service.”

“The technology obsession, the cancer of over-using technology, was actually just a symptom of this greater problem of, ‘Why is this a place where we can’t talk about our problems?’”

Then she said, “What would it take, how could you design that system?” She discovered in her research that it really wasn’t about the technology. It was about the fact that there were not open lines of communication within these consulting teams to raise issues. People felt like there was some sacred cow around, “This is the way things always need to be, and we’re not allowed to question that culture.” When people started questioning, “Why do we need to be 24/7, why can’t we have one night off? You cover me one night. When the customer calls at four in the morning, you’re going to be on call so I can have a good night’s sleep,” they discover not only is that possible, all these other things are possible. The technology obsession, the cancer of over-using technology, was actually just a symptom of this greater problem of, “Why is this a place where we can’t talk about our problems?”

We see that same exact metaphor all over the place. We see it in the family. Why is it that dad watches football every night? Why can’t we get together and talk as a family, as opposed to watching television? Why is it that the teenagers are on the phone all day?

Maybe it’s not because of technology, maybe it’s because they’re running away from something. Maybe because there aren’t lines of communication to actually address these issues. You can even go to the personal level. If one finds that they are truly addicted to technology, I don’t think it’s just the technology. It’s an opportunity for personal reflection. “What am I escaping from? Why do I have a discomfort with being bored for a few minutes?” This technology is the canary in the coal mine, whether it’s at the organizational, the family, or the individual level.

David: Under New Management deals with a bunch of different practices. One is banning or severely restricting email. People ask, “These are great, but how do we add these onto our culture?” The truth is, they’re not practices of addition, they’re practices of elimination. They’re practices of questioning, of saying, “Wait a minute.” They’re people saying, “I want to do my best work, but this is standing in the way, so we need to eliminate them.”

In some cases, that’s email, in other cases it’s the hiring process, in other cases it’s the performance review system. But the people who are doing the best work should have the right to kill sacred cows. Yet so often we assume, “That’s always the way we’ve done things, so we shouldn’t disrupt it.”

Nir: These habits of mind, ways of doing things just because they’ve always been done, pervade so many different aspects of our life. The worst thing we can do is to believe that these technologies control us.

The data shows that addicts who believe that a substance controls them, that they’re powerless against those substances, have the highest relapse rate. When we believe, “Email is so addictive,” or, “The world’s going to fall apart if I don’t check this email and respond back to work,”—by believing that we are powerless, we are. The real challenge is how do we question, how do we build a culture of talking back.

David: The real challenge is feeling like these things control us. [And] the real challenge of organizations is buying into the lie that you control your people. We live in an era where especially talented employees know that everyone’s essentially a free agent, they have the ability to walk out and find different jobs.

The assumption from an organization that you can control and modify behavior is dangerous, because the truth is most people are working for you as long as you’re working alongside the things that they want to do. When that breaks down, so do you.

We’ve been talking a lot about questioning assumptions, changing behaviors. What’s something that you thought controlled you, or an assumption that you had, that when you questioned it, you ended up changing your behavior?

Nir: My greatest successes in life have come from questioning basic assumptions. Some of those are very personal. When I was 18, I took a year off between high school and college. This was in 1997. AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps, had just been created by the Clinton administration; I was the first or second class to ever try it. Everybody told me, “That’s a stupid idea, you’re never going to go back to college.” My parents pleaded for me not to do it. Now we call it a “gap year,” but at the time nobody did it. It was one of the best things I ever did.

David: Yours is way more philosophical than mine.

To the point about being addicted to these technologies, I have two devices. I have one that is work email, the professional author, social media. Then, at the end of the day, I switch that out for an iPad that just has my personal Facebook, Netflix, and entertainment.

The two-device strategy for dealing with email is a great way to test whether or not you’re addicted to email, or whether it’s just the technology. Switch devices, and if you still find yourself running to the other one, it’s you, not the device. It’s helped me create a separation between the two mentally.

Nir: That’s a really good one. Let me give you one more along those lines.

I was finding a few years ago that every night at around 10 o’clock, when I should be going to bed, I was still on the web, reading articles, responding on Facebook, or emails, and I wasn’t getting to bed on time. I bought myself a $10 outlet timer, and I plugged this outlet timer into my router, so every night at 10 p.m., my internet shuts off. I could turn it back on if I wanted to, but the fact that I have to do extra work to do that uses this principle about shaping the environment to add a little bit more friction. Now I have to be mindful of, “Is this really what I want to be doing, or is this just a waste of time and mindless behavior?”

David: For those reading, you now have two different challenges around this technology. Pick one of them and go for it.