Is your smartphone leading to burnout?

By | November 23, 2018

Burnout and dealing with its symptoms has become a hot topic in the last decade. It’s a problem that has multiple contributing factors. Some of those factors are thrust upon us and are beyond our control, such as government regulations. Other factors are self-imposed, and thus under our control, such as volunteering for extra call shifts. One self-imposed factor is a little thing we use to improve our lives, our smartphone, which may be causing much more harm than we think.

I recently read the book, #DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life, by Jedediah Bila. It opened my eyes to some alarming trends we have created by incorporating our smartphones into our lives. Many of us have developed an addiction to these devices. This addiction may even have its own CPT code soon.

Here is an excerpt from her book:

“Have you ever looked at your email, then texts, then Facebook, then Twitter, then email, then Instagram, then Candy Crush, then texts, then Snapchat, then texts again, then realized you’ve wasted the time you had set aside for more important things?”

I saw myself in her statement. We used to say you can gain some extra time in your life by eliminating TV time. Now we need to eliminate smartphone time. Here are some of the problems I encountered with my smartphone addiction and how I chose to combat them.

Sleep deprivation

Most of us are in a position of not allowing ourselves enough time to get adequate sleep. Since we regularly have our sleep interrupted to care for our patients, we should not compound the problem with self-inflicted issues. We stay up late, either working or playing, and then get up too early in order to get a jump on the day. Many of us, myself included, keep our smartphone charging right next to us while we sleep.

Light makes the brain think that it’s daytime. When we look into our phone just before we go to bed, or look at it in the middle of the night, the light triggers our brain to think the sun is up and it is time to get up. This alters our ability to get to sleep.

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It’s time to move the smartphone away from our bed. This will remove the temptation to look at the phone when you should be sleeping. Not looking at your phone or any backlit screen, like a computer or television, for at least one hour before bed, will enable you to fall asleep faster. This one action could gain you an hour of sleep every night. I’ve started reading a novel in the last hour before bed to let my body and mind calm down.

Using your phone as a pager

This may be a hard habit to break. Many doctors have replaced the pager with their smartphone. I get it, smartphones are a lot more convenient. Smartphones certainly have some advantages over the pager, however, the disadvantages, I think, out weight the advantages.

I insisted on keeping my pager during this trend, and when I retired from medicine, I might have been the only doctor with a pager on the entire hospital staff. I wanted the ability to turn it off when I wasn’t working. If you use your smartphone as a pager, you are never unavailable. The nurse will automatically call you when one of your patient’s needs a doctor, not realizing someone else is on call today. If that same nurse had contacted you through your pager and you didn’t answer, they would then check the call schedule and contact the doctor on call. The smartphone is just too convenient for hospital staff.

I have had occasions when my phone rang at 6 a.m. while I was on vacation in a different time zone. They apologized for the mistake, but my wife and I were awakened and I usually couldn’t get back to sleep. I also began to worry about a patient I was not covering, at a time when I was to be unplugged from my job to recharge.

Using a pager gives you distinct downtime when you want it. If you insist on using your smartphone, consider having two phones. A cheap one for work and a fancy one for personal. Then when you are off, you can turn off the work phone.

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There are two different distractions the smartphone is causing. The first is having calls or notifications interrupt whatever you are working on.

When the phone rings, we tend to drop everything and answer it. This is especially bad during elections when so many extra robocalls are coming in. Every disruption doesn’t only cost you the time it took to answer the call, it also takes several minutes to find your place and get back into the project you were working on. Decreasing these interruptions will increase your productivity and get you home to your family sooner.

The second interruption is self-driven searching. We pick up the phone and see a notification. That leads us to read something and then search for something else and then look at a video and before you know it, we have been on the phone doing nothing productive for 20 minutes as is seen in the example from the book #DoNotDisturb.

That was 20 minutes we could have used for something good in our life, like time with our spouse, children, hobbies or some CME.

This mindless distraction and productivity loss is not helping your work-life balance.

Loss of family time

How many times have we seen an entire family having dinner at a restaurant with cell phones in hand? Everyone preoccupied with communicating with friends, reading the news, etc. None of them are present in the moment with each other. That is happening at home as well. As a busy professional, the small amount of time you get with your family is at a premium. You need to use that precious time to connect with them.

Have everyone leave their phone in another room for meals so the family can bond. It is very hard to catch up with your teenager if you are both on your phones at the dinner table.


Following are the changes I made to help combat the negative effects of my smartphone. I have seen a difference in both my productivity and my connection with my family. I hope these suggestions will help you do the same.

1. Move the phone charger away from your bedside. This is a must do item.

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2. Turn on the do not disturb feature on the phone. This will allow you to program a time frame for the phone not to make any noise. I set mine for 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Set yours to match your sleep schedule. I hated getting awaken by that friend who was up at 3 a.m. and remembered a text they wanted to send me. It made my phone ding, which woke me up and cost me sleep.

3. No phones at the dinner table. This is a time for conversation. A friend of mine told me when he goes out to eat with his buddies, they put their phones in a box in the center of the table. The first person to touch their phone pays for all the meals.

4. Get an hour’s worth of work done in the morning before you check your phone. You will not believe how much this will boost your productivity.

5. Schedule the time you check your email and other online activities, and don’t make it first thing in the morning. Don’t constantly check the phone and add to your distractions. Schedule it and group it all together for better efficiency.

6. Turn off the audible notifications feature and alter what you are notified for on each app. This will allow you to check your notifications on your schedule.

7. Take advantage of airplane mode when you want some unplugged time. Airplane mode will stop all communication and can be restarted much faster than if you turn off your phone.

I hope these suggestions will help take back control of your life, and your time. More control, better productivity, more sleep, and more family time will go a long way towards decreasing your chance of burnout.

Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett.  He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice RightThe Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt, and The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement.

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