We were asked to measure, track, and collect data on an electronic habit such as using social media, television, texting or checking stats on an apple watch. I can safely say that I am not an avid social media user. I chose to analyze checking work email. I would not actually check the email and perform a “data detox”. I was not prepared for the insights into my motivations over the past year this exercise would reveal. At first, I felt withdrawal. At times I actually felt I was doing something irresponsible. But after Wednesday, I actually started to feel better about it. Short of a major disaster at work, most items could wait until the next business day. There was no need to respond immediately and no one questioned why I didn’t respond right away. Being able to say “I was unavailable” is valid.
To add an added dimension to the experiment, I recorded if the email would have evoked a neutral, positive or negative (stress) response.
Using an app called TimeTag, I kept a log of each time I went to check my emails during off hours. TimeTag allows you to export an .csv file. At the end of the week, I took that .csv file and imported it into Microsoft Powerpoint. Powerpoint has a powerful chart creation tool with many easy click to create or modify features that make it possible to see how your data would make the most sense. I was short on time and could not learn a new tool to produce an infographic.
Once I figure out what type of chart I wanted (line, bar, pie, etc.) I saved a few slides and exported them as .pdfs. I opened the .pdfs in Adobe illustrator and worked on the layout and design of my infographic.
Below are visualizations of the results.
I may not be crazy. It feels good to say that despite what others may think about my choices. For a while, I have struggled with the idea that my dissatisfaction with my employment was some symptom of an underlying personal weakness. That said, I don’t advise common folk, even actual brain surgeons for that matter, perform brain surgery on themselves. So I want to make it clear that I am not using this assignment as an excuse to psychoanalyze myself. I will leave the prognosis to the professionals, but I will say, that it is somewhat of a relief to discover quantifiable evidence that would justify the seemingly irrational and nagging feeling that I hate my job.
When I first became an IT manager, there were a couple of motivating factors for the career move. I had been a designer, front end guy and communications manager and wanted to learn the ins and outs of the technical side of the underlying systems that made such work possible. Second, I wanted to be on the decision making side of the equation. Managing servers, evaluating a CMS, overseeing vendor services and monitoring a network appealed to me.
The first year on the job, I was happy as a clam: There were big challenges to face and I could build (use development skills I had picked up along the way and integrate non-compatible systems). Building feels good, but as the solutions were completed and the issues were resolved, the “building” part of the job decreased and I found myself supporting structures and maintaining systems more than problem solving. Occasionally I would fire up Photoshop for an email or web banner but these brief forays into creative mode was not enough.
If being an IT manager for a small business is like tending to a garden, then I was no longer planning and planting, I was just pulling weeds and watering. As a result, my dissatisfaction grew but I could not put my finger on it. I just knew that there was something wrong, and it manifested itself as anxiety. I had sowed these seeds, they are my responsibility, if the systems and processes fail..it is on me. I care about my work and my craftsmanship, so it is only natural that I check in periodically. Subconsciously I made the same irrational parallel Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made when she became upset that employees working from home were not checking in enough. I was using busyness as a proxy for productivity 1. (Newport 64)
I also had walked into a poor political situation where technology was often used as a scapegoat for poor business practices, internal coordination and performance. So, as my predecessor put it “throwing IT under the bus” was a favorite pastime of other department heads. I was slowly pushing back against it by pointing out new efficiency, but once embedded, it is a hard culture to root out… like crab grass and bamboo in your lawn. So, you get used to being in defensive mode, prepared to fend off criticisms and/or present compromises or solutions at a moments notice. Or, getting dragged into someone else’s issue because “there must be an app for that”. And in the quickly diminishing of metrics, something created or completed, to point to as proof of my value to the organization (i.e. comfort, safety and confidence), fear, even irrational fear, sets in. Metrics made absent by my increasing role of maintainer, the awkward position of “how bad things could be if…” logic of proving a potential negative. Ahh, the snooze fest that is a tickets closed report… ZZZZZZZ…..
Checking in periodically became a habit. I worried about the network, the performance and usability of the website, the POS (point of sale) systems, security, complaints from members and staff. All the usual hobgoblins keeping admins up at night. The dissatisfaction grew and I began to question the decision, myself, my purpose, the business model, my superiors, the users, the vendors, my colleagues. Although I continued to work and produce, through some difficult events such as the death of my boss (the one who hired me), and an uncomfortable internal struggle of users (very demanding members of a private club), the unhappiness was palpable. I had this nagging voice in my head “Dude, what is wrong, you are paying the bills, nobody’s after you, looks like you have a sweet deal here” So yeah. perhaps… I was just having the realization “I am not cut out for this line of work” which unfortunately carries a tinge of failure or ..I made a bad career move. Unhappiness bleeds into frustration and that becomes anger. I did not like the person I was becoming: defensive and paranoid. It became clear that I needed something else, to go in a different direction and started looking at the next step: schools. I presume that you can guess the rest of the story. So after performing the experiment this week and digesting the results, I will gladly say it again “I may not be crazy”. or suffer from some deep internal flaw like…. being a big baby.
Cal Newport begins the third chapter of his book “Deep Work” with an explanation of how craftsmanship leads to happiness. “The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.” As a designer, I always felt a sense of satisfaction with producing something, no matter how difficult the project or the approval process, at the end of it I always had something to show for the effort.
As an I.T, manager I no longer have this peace. No one pats IT people on the back and says, good job, the system did not completely fall apart today. Maybe they should but that is a post for another day. Providing support is a large customer service facet of the job and although some can raise it to an art form (God bless them), it is not a creative outlet. Illuminated through this exercise, I found that losing peace of mind was partly due to my own compulsive behavior. A compulsion is defined as an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes. It was against my wishes to be disturbed, to seek out negativity but strangely I had trained myself to do so again and again.
According to Unconscious Thought Theory introduced by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijkesterhuis, where the subconscious mind is better suited to tackle difficult problems. The belief that break throughs can be reached after a short nap or period performing another unrelated activity. The constant checking of emails off hours is actually keeping me in a perpetual state of anxiety. It would have been in my best interest to completely disconnect from work during my off hours but I didn’t.
Like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larsons test subjects strapped with beepers to record how they felt about their activities at the time of the interruption 2 (Newport 82), I found that I was not getting much positivity from checking my email. Of the 91 times I had checked my email that week, only one message evoked a positive response. They concluded that happiness was found when people are “in the zone”. A voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. I found that this habit not only prevented me from getting in the zone outside of the office, it was introducing negativity to my personal time. Hence, it is only natural (I emphasize…not crazy) to associate negative emotions and mental residue with work.
The triggers may be small but are measurable once you start to pay attention. During the daily grind of the shallows, I never once stopped and asked how I felt about the content of an email, how I felt about who sent it, how I felt about its intent. I only thought about the action to take next, not the small increase in heart rate, smile, sigh, or clenched jaw. The emotional response, no matter how small. is qualitative. Well , let’s be honest, I resisted in part because I was operating under the (manly?) assumption that feelings are unprofessional and have no purpose in the workplace. Nagging voice again:What is this? Grow up? You think everyone likes their job?
No, but I could like it more. Hopefully this knowledge will prevent a bad moment, a mid life crisis, drowning in the shallows or worse. We will never know, trust me, its hard to prove a negative.
Regardless of the cause or intent, it seems that this behavior is significantly reducing mental time away from work and detracting from my attention in other areas of my life. Previously seen as a “necessary” and “harmless” result of my professional responsibilities, The experiment revealed a bigger personal drain than expected. Given the positive/negative ratio of information makes the phone seem like a self-imposed electro-shock device. By the way, I also do not advise shocking yourself periodically either. Only crazy people would shock themselves but normal people keep drinking and smoking despite the knowledge of the ill effects. I am now acutely aware that at the very least, it is contributing to the negative view of my employment. This could even have potential health impact. It is clear that if I am to successfully add graduate studies to my endeavors, this habit will be unsustainable. I hope that like the Leslie Perlow experiment 3 (Newport 56) with the executives at the Boston Consulting Group that I will find more enjoyment in work, better communication and a better product delivered without completely dismantling my current employment. Apparently we have to set boundaries for ourselves, it is recognizing when you need to to so that is tricky.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Graphic by Shawn Torres, photos of some of my favorite infographic books “Super Graphic” by Tim Leong, “Information is Beautiful” by
David McCandless and “The Visual Miscellaneum” by David McCandless
- NEWPORT, C. (2018). DEEP WORK : rules for focused success in a distracted world. S.l: GRAND CENTRAL PUB.
- Larson, R., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The experience sampling method. In Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pp. 21-34). Springer Netherlands. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-9088-8_2
- Perlow, L. (2012). Predictable Time Off: The Team Solution To Overcoming Constant Work Connection. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/1837867/predictable-time-team-solution-overcoming-constant-work-connection
Leong, T. (2013). Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe. Chronicle Books. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Super-Graphic-Visual-Guide-Universe/dp/1452113882
McCandless, D. (2000). Information is Beautiful. Collins. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Information-Beautiful-David-McCandless/dp/000729
McCandless, D. (2009). The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World’s Most Consequential Trivia. Harper Design. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Visual-Miscellaneum-Colorful-Worlds-Consequential/dp/0061748366
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