Briefly Noted: On Sleeping with Your Smartphone

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on September 23, 2013.]

Well, I’ll be. A Harvard professor and her research associates recently discovered that compulsive overworking is common among American professionals and that, ahem, such over-workers need to build a healthy rhythm of work and rest into their lives.

Professor Leslie Perlow, in her interesting little book, Sleeping with Your Smarphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), cites a survey which found that 94 percent of American professionals said they worked at least fifty hours per week, plus an additional twenty to twenty-five hours working on their smartphones after leaving the office. Over the course of several years, Perlow studied professionals at the Boston Consulting Group. She asked members of the group to take “predictable time off” (PTO) which meant that they had to take one pre-planned night off from work per week.

By “off,” Perlow meant completely off—no emails, texts, voicemails, or anything else associated with their job. “The concept was so foreign,” Perlow writes, “that we had to practically force some professionals to take their time off, especially when it coincided with periods of peak work intensity. Eventually, however, the consultants came to enjoy and anticipate having predictable time off, particularly as the benefits for their work became evident.” Those benefits included enhanced work-life balance, accelerated professional development, and better inter-team effectiveness.

Perlow elaborates:

Four years after our first “Predictable Time Off” (PTO) experiment–afternoons or evenings totally disconnected from work and wireless devices, agreed-upon email blackout times, or uninterrupted work blocks that allow for greater focus, for example–72 percent of people involved said they were satisfied with their job vs. 49 percent of their colleagues who were not doing PTO; 54 percent of PTO participants were satisfied with their work-life balance vs. 38 percent; and 51 percent said they were excited to go to work in the morning, vs. 27 percent.

Not only individuals but the organization benefited: 58 percent of employees were more likely to plan to stay at the firm for the longer term, vs. 40 percent [who did not take PTO] and 95 percent of employees involved in PTO perceived they were delivering significant value to their clients vs. 84 percent [who did not take PTO].

Perlow’s book caught my attention because many pastors and Christian ministers are compulsive over-workers who allow their ministry jobs to trample their other callings—to family life and friendship, for example—and subvert God’s intentions for his imagers to have a healthy rhythm of work and leisure.  By way of response to Perlow’s study, I offer a few thoughts on a biblical view of work and leisure.

After having created Adam and Eve, God placed them in the garden and told them to work—to be fruitful, till the soil, name the animals, and have dominion. In other words, God built work into the very structures of creation; it is a pre-Fall ordinance. Just as day and night form an alternating rhythm, so man works and labors until evening, and then rests afterward (Ps 104). Just as God created and then rested, so many works and then rests on the Lord’s Day. So work is not a curse or a punishment. It is part of God’s plan and in fact continues on into the new creation (Is 65:21-23).

Likewise leisure. God’s creation reveals, as Leland Ryken puts it, a certain “gratuitous and exuberant going beyond” the features necessary to maintain human life. It disposes us toward leisure, alluring us and compelling us to take part in the world’s abundance, its variations of beauty, people, and venues for relaxation. God made the trees of the garden pleasant to look at (Gen 2:9) and to taste. He gives wine to make the heart happy and oil to make his face shine (Ps 104:15).

However, both work and leisure have been corrupted by the fall. Work is no longer an uninterrupted blessing. It has been distorted and misdirected toward idols, and one of those idols is work itself. Compulsive over-workers often worship work instead of worshiping the Giver of the gift of work. As a result our work is cursed to be painful and often vain (Gen 3:17-19; Eccl 2:18). Likewise leisure. Leisure often degenerates into immorality and ultimately does not satisfy (Eccl 2:1-11).

In this fallen condition, therefore, we should remind ourselves of God’s creational design for a healthy rhythm of work and leisure. We should discern the ways in which we have corrupted that design by making an idol out of work, or out of the money or success that overworking might bring. And finally, we should prayerfully work to bring healing and reformation to our lives by allowing Christ Jesus to reign as Lord over both our work and leisure.

The Lord’s Day comes at the beginning of the week, and provides the starting point for our attempts to restore a healthy rhythm of work and leisure. This day provides the leisure to meditate on God’s word, reflect upon his goodness, worship with the people of God, and otherwise rest in Him. And this leisure propels us forward into the next six days of the week. If we ignore the leisure provided for us on the Lord’s Day, we do so not only to the detriment of our relationship with the Lord, but also to the detriment of the week, our families, and our friends.

Beyond this divinely instituted rhythm, we are wise also to build into our weekdays some space for leisure so that we can rest and recharge, take time to think and reflect, and enjoy our families and friends. Ryken is worth quoting extensively:

We can be deeply appreciative for the provision that God has made for human life in the rhythm of work and leisure…. Not only are work and leisure good in themselves; they also balance each other and help to prevent the problems that either one alone tends to produce. If we value work and leisure properly, we will avoid overvaluing and undervaluing either one…. At the heart of Christianity is a conviction that we can change our patterns of life in a Godward direction. We are not doomed to perpetuate wrong attitudes toward work and leisure. Constructive change is always possible. It may be necessary as well. The choice is ours.

Dr. Perlow is right. We need to stop sleeping with our smartphones in favor of some predictable time off. Pastors and “professional ministry” people are no exception; in fact, we can be some of the worst offenders. In obedience to the Lord of work and leisure, therefore, and with an eye toward our own health and flourishing, let’s lay aside our smartphones and pick up a healthier rhythm of work and leisure.