Technology should make our lives easier. Smartphones provide a palm-sized window to the world, allowing us to do almost anything at the touch of a button. Smart homes take care of themselves and virtual meetings mean that for many, time spent commuting is a thing of the past.
So we should have more free time. The time you now spend sleeping, resting or just being idle – right?
If the idea of having more time than ever makes you want to choke on your coffee, you’re not alone. There is growing evidence that while digital technology can help us save a little time, we end up using that time to do more and more things.
We recently interviewed 300 people across Europe to find out how they use digital devices in their daily lives. This research showed that people want to avoid empty periods of time in their lives, so they fill those periods by performing tasks, some of which would not be possible without technology.
Whether it’s waiting for a bus, waking up in the morning, or lying in bed at night, our participants reported that time that was previously “empty” is now filled with brain-training apps creating to-do lists to do or try based on their social media feed and other life admin.
It seems that the quiet moments of people watching, imagining and dreaming are now filled with technology-based tasks.
The growth of digital tasks is happening in part because technology seems to be changing our perception of what free time is. For many people, it is no longer enough to simply eat dinner, watch TV or perhaps exercise.
Instead, in an effort to avoid wasting time, these activities take place while you surf the web in search of the ingredients for a more perfect life and try to develop a sense of accomplishment.
At first glance, some of these tasks may seem like examples of technology that saves us time. In theory, online banking should mean that I have more time because I no longer need to go to the bank on my lunch break. However, our research shows that this is not the case. Technologies contribute to a denser form of life.
Social media can sometimes inspire, motivate or depress people. But our research shows that people often feel guilt, shame and regret after filling their free time with online activities. This is because they perceive online activities as less authentic and valuable than real-world activities.
People still seem to think that going out or actually being with friends is more valuable than online. Maybe if we put the phone down a little longer, we’ll have time to cook those recipes we’re looking at online.
Why technology creates more work
Changing work patterns is also considered work intensification. Homework and hybrid work enabled by video conferencing technology have blurred the lines between work time and personal time. Now that the office is in the spare room, it’s all too easy to think, “I’ll just go into the study and be done after I put the kids to bed.”
Digital technologies accelerate the pace of life. Do emails and online meetings. Before they existed, we had to wait for answers to voicemails and letters, or travel to places to talk to each other. Instead, we now have back-to-back online meetings, sometimes without enough time in between to even pop to the bathroom.
And email creates exponential growth in communications, which means more work to read and respond to it all. Badly designed technology can also force us to do more work because of the inefficiencies it creates. We’ve all been there, entering information into System A only to learn that since Systems A and B don’t talk to each other, we have to enter it twice.
By doing more, we may achieve less and feel worse. As times become more stressful, stress, exhaustion and burnout increase, leading to more absenteeism.
How can we slow down and turn back time?
Recovering the time “saved” by technology may require a change in the way we proportion time. To break free from the habit of filling up time with more and more tasks, we must first accept that sometimes it is good to do little or nothing.
In the workplace, employers and employees must create an environment where disconnection is the norm, not the exception. This means having realistic expectations of what can and should be accomplished in a typical work day.
But developing legislation that enshrines the right to disconnect may be the only way to ensure that technology stops taking over our time. Several European countries such as France and Italy already have the right to delink legislation.
This specifies that employees are not required to be able to communicate outside of working hours and that they have the right to refuse to take digital work home with them.
It’s also possible that technology itself is the key to reclaiming our time. Imagine that instead of telling you to get up and move (another task), your smartwatch tells you to stop working because you’ve met your agreed hours. Maybe when technology starts telling us to do less, we’ll finally get our time back.
Ruth Ogden is Professor of the Psychology of Time at Liverpool John Moores University.
Joanna Vitovska is an assistant professor of psychology at Maria Grzegorzewska University.
Wanda Montenegro is a postdoctoral researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences.
This article was first published on The conversation.