Do you find yourself rushing to respond to an email as soon as you hear your inbox ping? Or maybe you have a habit of working after-hours, or scrolling through multiple social media platforms first thing after waking up.
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Indeed, we live much of our lives online. A March 2021 report from the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of U.S. adults are online almost constantly, and 48 percent go online several times a day.
But being available online 24/7 can take a toll on your mental health, a phenomenon called "digital burnout." Here's what digital burnout is, how it can affect you and how to deal with it.
Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted? Try this 7-Day Kickstart Plan to Overcome Burnout.
What Is Digital Burnout?
Burnout is the result of chronic unmanaged workplace-related stress, according to the World Health Organization. And when you mix too much screen time with the expectation that you always have to be available online, it can lead to its own version of the issue.
Enter digital burnout, which, according to McLean Hospital, refers to the feelings of anxiety, exhaustion and apathy caused by spending too much time on digital devices. Some signs and symptoms of digital burnout include:
- Sleep issues like persistent trouble falling asleep or sleep that feels increasingly less restful
- Decreased energy
- Physical effects like chest pains
Remote work is a common source of digital burnout (sometimes called digital overload), though you can also experience it if your job requires little or no technology. Other causes of digital burnout include:
- Spending too much time online without regular breaks
- Consuming too much information online
- Multitasking across different devices
Over time, this fatigue can lead to more lasting mental health problems. "Digital overload is linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety and can generally make you feel bad about yourself," says Ajita Robinson, PhD, grief and trauma therapist and author of The Gift of Grief.
In fact, burnout in your virtual life can lead to exhaustion beyond the computer. "Digital overload leads to mental burnout," says Emily Pardy, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified perinatal mental health practitioner. "The screen time alone is taxing on our eyes and minds."
How to Tell if You Have Digital Burnout
Feel exhausted or overwhelmed, but not sure if screens are the source of your fatigue? According to the Mayo Clinic, here are signs that you're experiencing digital burnout from remote work:
- Feeling like you have to always be online and you can't unplug at the end of the day
- Difficulty separating work and personal time
- Feeling like you have to work extra hours in order to prove yourself
How to Deal With It
Setting boundaries is a key way to ease or prevent burnout of all kinds. And digital burnout is no different, which is why it's important to set rules and limits that allow you to maintain a healthy relationship with technology.
"Simple practices like turning off notifications or just moving an app from the front screen of your phone to another can create healthy barriers to check yourself," Pardy says. "It's fine to still engage with these apps, but you want to choose to and feel empowered by intentionally selecting the technology instead of defaulting to it by habit."
Here's how to create those boundaries:
1. Set Time Limits
"It's vital to set time limits with our digital consumption," Pardy says. But that can be difficult when you have an overflowing email inbox, unchecked social media notifications and a looming work deadline.
Accordingly, remember that you don't have to eliminate apps completely — just be more intentional about how much time you spend on your devices.
Harness your devices to help you set boundaries by viewing how much time you spend on apps, setting screen time goals and using "Do Not Disturb" features. If you have an Android phone you can find these features in the Digital Wellbeing tool. If you have an iPhone, use the Screen Time setting.
2. Turn Off Your Notifications
Turning off your notifications after a certain point in the day can help you reclaim your time. For instance, Robinson recommends using your phone's "Do No Disturb" feature, pausing your Slack notifications and snoozing your email inbox at the end of the work day.
If a task or a loved one really requires your energy and attention, then it's OK to tend to it. But when you make every notification an urgent priority, you become less available for the things that bring you joy.
In order to ensure that our digital boundaries (and all boundaries) are respected by others, we have to communicate them.
"It's OK to tell people that you aren't available," Robinson says. "Just because you have free time doesn't mean you're available."
The key is to be assertive but kind so you prioritize your needs while also keeping your professional and personal relationships in good standing.
For example, "If you just stop answering texts, that will send too harsh of a message to your co-workers or loved ones," Pardy says. Instead, in this scenario she suggests saying something like, "Thank you for understanding that after work is when I spend time with my family, so I won't be responding to texts until the next morning."
When you make every notification an urgent priority, you become less available for the things that bring you joy.
4. Say No
Get comfortable saying no to people and situations that don't honor your digital boundaries. That might mean refusing to respond to emails after work hours or answering the phone after a certain time.
"'No' is a complete sentence — use it," Robinson says. "You aren't obligated to say 'yes' just because you can do something."
How to Say 'No' at Work
Saying "no" at work is often easier said than done, though. Pardy recommends explaining your digital boundaries and thanking colleagues and superiors for their understanding in advance. It's also important to note how everyone will benefit from your boundary and ease any fears about a lack of productivity.
This may sound something like the following, Pardy says: "Thanks for understanding that I won’t be checking my emails after 5 p.m. — I really appreciate how you value my family time. I know it’s important we don’t let any clients slip through the cracks, which is why I’ll follow up first thing in the morning so our clientele get the attention they deserve."
5. Give Yourself Some Grace
Setting boundaries in order to protect your time and mental health may make you feel guilty at first. But it's important to give yourself grace and to look at boundary-setting as an ongoing practice.
"Boundaries don't come naturally to us, which is why we have to be intentional and selective in enforcing them," Pardy says. "Like any new habit, it takes a lot of practice for these boundaries to integrate into our daily lives."
In the meantime, Robinson suggests asking yourself the following questions if you feel guilty for setting a boundary:
- Who benefits from you not having time off?
- Who benefits from you disregarding your own needs?
- What is the cost of not enforcing these boundaries? Who pays the cost?
6. Focus on One Task at a Time
How much do you really get done when you try to multitask? Instead of scrambling to do everything at once, try focusing on one task at a time in order to maximize your productivity and minimize stress.
"Our society demands and rewards multitasking," Pardy says. "But when you multitask non-stop, you end up spreading yourself thin. Instead of giving one task 100 percent of your attention, you end up doing 10 things at 10 percent and often end up feeling like a failure in all of them."
By focusing on one thing at a time, you can help reframe your mindset to value completing one task really well instead of leaving several tasks half-complete, Pardy says.
7. Uninstall Apps
If you've tried setting time limits and pausing notifications on your devices but have trouble sticking to those restrictions, it might be time to delete some apps.
Unless it's an app that you absolutely need for work or staying connected to friends and family, you probably don't actually need it on your phone. For instance, consider whether you really need Instagram, Twitter and TikTok on your home screen.
If not, move these apps to a less-conspicuous place on your phone, use only the desktop versions of the apps or delete them altogether.
Is This an Emergency?
- Pew Research Center: "About three-in-ten U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online"
- WHO: "Burn-out an 'occupational phenomenon': International Classification of Diseases"
- McLean Hospital: "Power Down: 4 Ways to Fight Digital Burnout"
- Mayo Clinic: "Teleworking during the coronavirus: Tips for coping"