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Law Practice Magazine


Simple Steps: Preventing Digital Burnout

Allison C Johs


  • Modern law practices are highly dependent on technology. Although screen time is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to prevent burnout.
Simple Steps: Preventing Digital Burnout

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Are you suffering from digital burnout? These days, legal professionals are spending more time on their devices than ever before. Many have switched to virtual or hybrid work environments, adding even more screen time and making it especially difficult to disconnect. All of this can easily lead to digital burnout.

According to McLean Hospital, digital burnout is “the feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, and apathy caused by spending too much time on digital devices.” It can lead to sleep disorders, decreased energy and chest pains, and can have a negative impact on mental health. Digital burnout can develop into a vicious cycle: Lack of sleep causes irritability and anxiety, which results in a fear of missing something, which in turn results in an impulse to continuously check email, news feeds or social media, leading to more sleep disruptions.

Signs Of Digital Burnout

If you are concerned that you might be headed for digital burnout, ask yourself:

  • Are you feeling more isolated and disconnected?
  • Is your sleep routinely disrupted?
  • Is prolonged exposure to negative news or nasty online con- versations making you anxious?
  • Are you less active than you were in the past?
  • Is the amount of time you spend on your devices preventing you from performing important tasks or engaging in non-screen activities you enjoy?
  • Do you find that, even when you are in the company of other people, you still spend a lot of time on screen?

How Digital Burnout Happens

Modern law practices are highly dependent on technology. Lawyers use screens to create and review documents; meet with clients; collaborate with colleagues; and even to attend hearings, mediations and court proceedings. Email has emerged as the pre- dominant communication tool, taking the place of telephone calls and “snail mail.” As a result, it can be almost impossible to get away from your devices during the workday. And even nonwork hours have become dominated by screen time. Socializing is done online through Instagram or Facebook groups. Newspapers have been replaced by Twitter and online news outlets. Events that used to be held in person have moved online.

Many social media and online platforms are designed to keep you on the site as long as possible. They collect data about everything you do: what you engage with, what you click on, what you read, who you follow, what sites you visit, etc. They feed you more of it to keep you there, and hopefully to get you to spend money with them or their advertisers.

Virtual meetings and videoconferences have become ubiquitous. One factor that may contribute to digital fatigue is constantly seeing your own face on the screen. In an in-person meeting, you can see everyone else, but you cannot see yourself. But in a virtual meeting, your face appears on the screen along with the other participants. It can be difficult for some people not to constantly look at themselves or obsess about their appearance on screen. Not only can this distract you from what is happening in the meeting, but it can also create additional stress.

According to National Geographic, another contributing factor to “Zoom fatigue” is using gallery view, where you see all of the participants on the screen at once. In an in-person meeting, you may be able to see everyone else in the room, but you are usually only focused on one person at a time. Gallery view can be overwhelming because your brain is trying to decipher not only the words being spoken during the meeting, but also all the nonverbal visual cues, such as body language or facial expressions, of everyone on the screen.

Preventing Digital Burnout

Although screen time is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to prevent burnout:

Get rid of as many notifications and pop-ups as possible. Limit notifications to only those that are essential to accomplish your daily tasks. Notifications create false urgency; the appearance of a pop-up or sound of a notification distracts you from your work and creates the sense that you must check the app or program immediately. Instead, check for new messages or posts only when your schedule allows.

Take notice of when and where you reach for your device. Is using your device in that situation helpful or harmful? How do you feel just before you reach for your phone? Is your device a way of avoiding a difficult situation, experience or emotion? Are there other ways you can address those issues or coping mechanisms you can employ? Find someone to talk to instead of reaching for your device. Discuss your concerns, frustrations or problems with friends, family or colleagues.

Resist the urge to pull out your device whenever you are alone, on the train, waiting for a meeting to start or at a restaurant waiting for your companions to arrive. Allow yourself to just sit and notice your surroundings, catch up with your thoughts, meditate or even be bored.

Lawyers spend a great deal of time managing their email every day. Delete liberally. But don’t stop there. Make it easier to wade through your inbox by unsubscribing or opting out of newsletters, promotional messages and advertisements. You can always opt in again later if you need to. Replace email with more effective collaboration tools that are better suited for tasks like sharing or collaborating on documents or scheduling meetings.

If you are a law firm manager or supervisor and you want your employees to avoid digital burnout, you need to set an example by modeling good digital habits. Don’t send email after work hours—even if you don’t expect your employees to check their email or to respond to you after hours. Once they learn that you send email after hours, they will be tempted to check their email just to be sure. That could even run afoul of overtime laws. If you think of something and want to send an email about it before you forget, draft the email and wait to send it or schedule it to automatically send during work hours.

Don’t multitask. Trying to respond to email or get other work done while you are in a virtual meeting is not only inconsiderate to the other meeting attendees but is an inefficient way of working. Your attention cannot possibly be on both the videoconference and on your email or other work at the same time. As a result, you are much more likely to miss something important in the video- conference or to make a mistake in your other work—or both.

Make meetings more effective. Invite only those people who absolutely must be present at the meeting. Use an agenda and stick to the meeting time.

If possible, hide your own face during virtual meetings. You can do this on Zoom by hovering over your video and clicking on the ellipses, then click on Hide Self View. This leaves your camera on so that others can see you, but you won’t be able to see your own video. A similar feature is available on Microsoft Teams. To cut down on screen time, consider replacing virtual meetings with telephone calls when there are fewer participants or if sharing a screen is unnecessary.

Take regular breaks. Schedule buffer time between meetings to allow yourself to get away from your screen. Set reminders to get up and move around at least every 90 minutes. Take a walk and get the blood flowing. Take all of your available paid time off, and don’t bring your screen along on your break—even “relaxing” activities like reading books, listening to podcasts and binge-watching Netflix contribute to the information overload that leads to digital burnout.

Finally, get regular exercise. Sitting all day and being focused on your screen can have serious consequences for your health beyond just digital burnout.