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Rise of the new workaholics: The 24-7 work cycle

Ink

Jacinta Langford Hoyt’s workday starts before she gets out of bed.

Her TMobile G2, which doubles as an alarm clock, wakes her up. She grabs it from her nightstand and pops open e-mail.

After cleaning up her ever-expanding inbox, Langford Hoyt logs on to Twitter to respond to any tweets from her clients’ customers. Next, it’s on to Facebook. Langford Hoyt skims that like the front page of a newspaper before perusing her favorite celebrity news blogs for updates on Prince William’s upcoming wedding.

All this before breakfast.

Langford Hoyt, 30, lives in Lawrence and works 50 or 60 hours a week as head of her own marketing company, Langford Media. But those hours aren’t divided into tidy eight- or 10-hour chunks — they’re scattered in bursts of productivity throughout every hour of every day.

That blending of work and personal life is becoming increasingly common. Thanks to the Internet, e-mail, laptops, smart phones, WiFi and social networking, we can work anytime, anywhere. All those things unleash us from our cubicles and allow us to be productive from anywhere, even bed.

But they also create challenges for modern workers. The big one: Achieving a work/life balance is harder than ever.

Chandler Simpson, 27, has already given up on separating his work and personal lives. Like Langford Hoyt, Simpson runs his own company, Itzu Media, a Kansas City-based multimedia contractor that does everything from videography to Web strategy. Like Langford Hoyt, he sets his own hours.

Simpson says he’s most productive late at night. Sometimes, he edits video until 6:30 a.m.

His philosophy: “You can’t can good ideas into a time frame.”

For lots of workers, a 9-to-5 workday doesn’t make sense anymore, says Kathy E. Gill, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington who studies human-computer interaction.

Gill says clocking in for eight straight hours is reasonable if you work on, say, an assembly line. But if you have a job that deals in information and ideas — designing, researching, writing — it’s not.

Now that we can work whenever, wherever, “we have to rethink what it means to be productive,” Gill says.

For many white-collar workers, being productive used to mean putting in eight hours at a cubicle. Now it means finishing a task or coming up with an idea, whether that takes eight hours or eight minutes.

“In a way, it’s almost like going back to piece work, when people were paid by the piece, not by the hour,” Gill says.

That’s a pretty sweet system when you’re feeling creative and knocking out everything on your to-do list.

When Simpson feels like he’s ahead (he says that’s rare), he’ll kick up his feet and watch “The Original Kings of Comedy.” Even if it’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. Likewise, Langford Hoyt treats herself to a walk with her dog or a few errands after typing up a time-consuming e-mail blast.

But there’s a flipside: When you’re behind, you have all day and all night to catch up. You have your smart phone, your laptop, your Bluetooth. You have no reason not to work.

That’s cool with Simpson, who says the expectation that work stops at 5 p.m. doesn’t exist in his head.

It’s not that way for everybody, though. Recently, Simpson collaborated with a Web developer who always quits work at 6 p.m., no matter what.

“At first, we butted heads over that,” Simpson says.

After Simpson and the Web developer established a few ground rules (no e-mails after 6, etc.), their working relationship smoothed out.

That wasn’t the last time Simpson’s workaholic tendencies caused problems in his personal life. Simpson says he and his girlfriend broke up a couple of weeks ago in part because he works too much.

We’re all struggling to figure out how this new technology fits into our lives, Gill says. And it is new — humans have been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1991 that we started dialing in to America Online.

Gill says scientists don’t yet know how, say, Google, is changing us. But we can look to previous advances in communication technology, such as the printing press, radio and television, to see how things might play out. Every time a technology is introduced, she says, there’s a period of euphoria, followed by a period of major disappointment, when we all realize that nothing can live up to the hype.

Katie McCurry, 29, is admittedly euphoric over Twitter (she averages 12-25 tweets a day) and her iPhone (which she calls her “best friend”). Her tech obsession recently netted her a job as senior marketing client driver at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the world’s second-largest professional services firm.

The company found her on Linkedin, a networking site for professionals. McCurry firmly believes that her Twitter know-how impressed her recruiters and helped her seal the deal.

But even plugged-in McCurry understands that she needs to screen out electronics once in awhile.

She used to get pop-up notifications on her work computer every time someone tweeted her. When she realized that was distracting her from work, she turned the notifications off.

And since McCurry is on her computer and iPhone for most of the day at work, she considers it important to unplug at home. She doesn’t receive work e-mail on her iPhone. She knows that if she did, she couldn’t stop herself from checking it. McCurry also makes a conscious effort to put her iPhone away when she’s around her new puppy, an Australian shepherd mix named Rigby.

“If I’m talking on the phone, he’ll howl in a low, muffled way,” McCurry says. “So I try to stay off it when I’m around him.”

We’re all going to have to figure out similar coping systems if we want to learn to “close the virtual door,” Gill says.

Closing that door is especially important for those among us who are becoming addicted to our devices. Yep, addiction is possible: Gill says that every time we get a notification, read a blog post or watch a YouTube video, our brain releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine.

Which makes us want to click. And click. And click some more.

“Some of the research suggests that what dopamine is doing is encouraging us to seek. Search. Find out. And so that ties into why checking Twitter or Facebook or e-mail or IM would get (us) in a positive feedback loop.”

Some of us, Gill says, are able to postpone that instant gratification better than others.

Those who have a hard time avoiding technological distractions do have ways of helping themselves out, though.

There’s an app called Freedom that blocks the Internet on your computer for up to eight hours. Another one, Isolator, covers up your desktop and all the icons on it so you can home in on a single task.

Or you could do what Justin Parlette does.

Parlette, a Kansas City filmmaker who works at UMKC as a computer technician and runs his own Apple consulting firm, occasionally unplugs himself from technology for an entire day. This allows him to reboot his mind and avoid burnout.

It also frightens his Twitter followers, who immediately notice his absence and send tweets asking if he’s OK. He has learned to announce his time-outs from technology.

There’s a chance that unplugging might soon become a national movement.

Meetup.com, a social networking service that encourages its users to break away from screens and interact face-to-face, operates a site called unplugyourfriends.com. The site helps visitors stage interventions for their screen-addicted friends with this simple form letter:

“Dear __, I’m sending this letter because (I care/it’s getting annoying/I’m not sure you’re still alive). This is an intervention. It’s time to admit you have a problem. You’re addicted to (Your computer/your crackberry/updating your Facebook profile). I’m worried you’re going to (become a LOLcat lady/develop enormous thumbs/become a zombie). When is the last time you (saw the sun/laughed out loud instead of LOLed/did something not involving a screen)?”

Ironically, the letter ends with a plea to join Meetup (an online social network).

Maybe Parlette, 30, should expect a letter like this from one of his friends. His desk at UMKC looks like it belongs to a hoarder — a very neat, wealthy, tech-obsessed hoarder.

“I might be responding to an e-mail with the iPad, chatting with a colleague on the Mac, compiling code on the laptop,” Parlette says. Don’t even get him started on his iPhone 4.

“It runs my day-to-day existence,” he says. “It’s got my appointments, calendar, music, last night’s episode of ‘Conan’ for when I’m at the gym.”

He’s constantly on that thing, which bugs his elders.

“One of the things I get asked a lot from folks above the age of 40 is, ‘Why are you on your phone? Leave that alone. You’re not at work,’ ” Parlette says. “But that doesn’t apply anymore. People expect instant responses and communication.”

As much as Gill loves technology — she has five Twitter accounts — she worries about what she calls “the pressure to always be on.”

“Which doesn’t give people time to sit back and think,” Gill says. “One of the skills we need to learn to do is cut off from that thrill of being connected.”

That thrill that — if not managed — can turn to stress and burnout.

It’s like Parlette says, as he’s talking on his work phone, trying not to get distracted by the buzzing iPhone that rarely leaves his side.

“It’s an indispensable tool,” he says. “But there are times you put the tool down.”


infobox-hr-separator /> infobox-head>ink’s Rise of the New Workaholics series
For many people in their 20s and 30s, work and personal lives are becoming so intertwined that it’s hard to tear them apart. This month, Ink devotes three issues to exploring how young professionals are working toward finding a work/life balance in the new era of the workaholic.

•Today | Navigating the 24/7 work cycle: How technology is changing our work habits, for better or worse.

•Next week | Creative companies: Go inside some local offices where it’s OK — even encouraged — to have fun, and find out how to stay productive while taking brain breaks.

•Jan. 26 | Personal branding: Thanks to social networking and other technology, your persona isn’t limited to the office anymore, and the way we network has dramatically changed. Find out how to put your best self forward and meet local young people who have developed intriguing brands for themselves.


infobox-hr-separator /> infobox-head>6 ways to unplug
Chuck Franks, a Kansas City business coach, works with clients who have trouble disconnecting from work.

Here’s what he tells them to do.

1. Give yourself permission to set the gadget (smart phone, laptop, etc.) down or turn it off after you’re done working. You don’t have to respond to every message immediately.

2. If you’re able to work whenever you want, set some office hours. Having a set cutoff point will help amp up your productivity at work so you can completely disconnect when you’re done.

3. If you think you’re spending too much time responding to messages via e-mail, text, Facebook and Twitter, then limit yourself to checking messages once every half-hour, hour or couple of hours. Unless, that is, your job is responding to messages.

4. Communicate to your boss and co-workers how they can contact you best. For example, you might decide that you’ll check e-mail once an hour every hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and not at all on evenings and weekends. Frank adds that in the current economy, it’s definitely best to ask — not tell — your boss about adjusting your communication habits.

5. Also let co-workers know how to contact you in an emergency and what you consider an emergency. That way, you’ll know that if they really need to tell you something important, they’ll call your cell phone instead of sending an e-mail or Facebook message.

6. If you’re feeling addicted to constant connection, consider that it’s your choice to check (or not check) your phone 500 times a day. Franks tells his clients to take a different route to work every day for a week.

“That raises awareness of how many times we make decisions throughout the day,” he says.

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