After A Year Of Lockdowns, You’re Not The Only One Who Has Reached Message Meltdown

Twelve months in to living more online than off, we're suffering from WhatsApp overload and stuck in round-the-clock email chains. But don't panic, says Elle Hunt - here's how we can start to change that

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by Elle Hunt |

'It’s great to relax in front of the big screen after spending the day looking at the medium-sized screen, before I retire to bed to look at the small screen until I fall asleep,' comedian and Taskmaster regular Rose Matafeo recently tweeted.

It neatly – and grimly – encapsulated many of our lives over the past year of the pandemic. With so much of our lives moved online, the personal alongside the professional, any boundaries we might have been able (or hoped) to establish around our use of technology have been thrown out.

Our time is held hostage by tech difficulties, Zoom meetings that run into Zoom drinks, and emails appear round the clock even as the days blur together. Even WhatsApp messages and voice notes from friends and family now register somehow as the same thankless, technological admin. Now's not the time for a digital detox when the virtual world is all we have – but for as long as we're so dependent on tech, is it at least possible to make it a little less painful?

How to combat Zoom fatigue

We can start by minimising it where possible. We’ve all been to meetings, in the before-times, that could have been emails – these days, they are video calls that could have been phone calls. 'Zoom fatigue' is real.

Bruce Daisley, a workplace culture expert and host of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast, says many people have seen their video calls creep up over the past year, often separate to any question of productivity or personal preference. Back-to-back Zoom meetings can leave us feeling helpless, he says.

Daisley suggests trying to limit video calling for work to eight hours a week, max. 'We find phone calls less exhausting than wincing at our hair on a Teams call, for example,' he says. 'Phone calls also let us get out of the house as well – and practicing getting out of lounge wear is going to be valuable experience for our reintroduction into society.'

An email exchange is even less obtrusive – though emails, too, seem to have ballooned in lockdown. 'We’ve lost the physical and temporal boundaries between home and work,' says Anna Cox, a professor of human-computer interaction at UCL; the solution is to create them. Make plans for after work, and set an alarm to go off 10 minutes before the end of your workday to ensure that you actually stop.

You might even try a 'fake commute', says Cox. 'Once you’ve shut down your computer, head off for a walk or cycle ride… When you come home, you’ll be in a much better headspace for being in home mode.'

Time to check ourselves

Our own behaviour is not the only relevant factor, of course. You cannot stop your boss from emailing after midnight, but you can break the reply-cycle – and model better habits – by scheduling your reply to send during business hours.

In her email signature, Cox invites her correspondents to reply only during their normal workday to 'reduce email overload'. If yours fail to get the message, and you find your private time continually interrupted by work comms, she suggests removing the relevant apps from your phone.

You can pay the favour forward by trying to be mindful of how you might be affecting other people, and not messaging late at night or taking offence when you are left on read. One problem with digital communication is that it can obscure our sense of a real person on the other end – someone who might be sick, stressed, depressed, or just busy.

Perhaps counterintuitively, social skills are especially important in digital communication, says etiquette expert Lisa Grotts, because of how fast the norms are evolving and the absence of face-to-face cues. 'We don’t always realise how much body language and facial expressions work to convey meaning and tone. Without them, the reader can only puzzle out words on a screen.'

So, perhaps one of the most crucial things we can do in this brave new world is to just go easy on each other. Try not to feel frustrated with that friend for not replying to your text – and remember, you’ve probably got a bunch of unanswered messages yourself.

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