It can feel good to flop in front of the TV at the end of a busy day. With a simple click you are transported and entertained. You can switch off your brain. The same is true at work. It feels good to flop in front of your screen and with a click disappear into your messages. As you plug into your inbox, you can switch off and pass the time away. All your replies, CCs and emoticons are a welcome distraction from real thinking. Email isn’t work; it’s light entertainment.
If TV and email are light relief from the big demands we face today, is a bit of chill out time in front of our screens so bad? The thing is, most of us aren’t just spending a ‘bit’ of time: the average American sends 5 hours a day watching TV. (that’s over 2 months a year!); the average British worker feels they’ve had a good day if all they have done is empty their inbox!* Chilling on this scale is costly. For one thing, the average psychological state while watching TV is mildly depressed!** The ancient Greeks had it right: they believed that leisure should be effortful, and separated leisure from relaxation. More modern research into happiness shows we are much more likely to experience happiness at work than at home, because at work we are stretched and challenged. When you reflect on your last few weeks, the vast majority of the times you felt really happy would have been when you were exerting effort: learning something, immersed in a hobby, playing sport or elbow deep in a great conversation.
We are happiest when we are putting effort in; in work and at home. It will always be easier and more appealing to flop into outlook than grapple with that hard project, the one where you don’t even know where to start. However, real satisfaction and success is never to be found in electronic chit chat; but in sustained effort and focus on the problems that matter in your work.
So, go ahead, dive into your email, but don’t fool yourself. It’s not really work. It’s not even leisure. It’s reality TV.
*This study cited in Dave Coplin’s ‘The rise of the humans’
**In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’