I was chatting with a student the other day about job leads. The discussion centered around resume building, developing skills, and the dreaded Zoom interview. We were chatting over Zoom, of course, which feels like being in the Matrix of the Matrix.
During the call, I noticed something was different: I didn’t feel as tired. Over the last year, as many of us have started working at home and communicating more by video chat, I’ve learned to pay close attention but also practice the art of benevolent detachment. It’s something I’ve been writing about recently and cover in my upcoming book about productivity with purpose. The term comes from the author John Eldredge, who describes it as not always worrying about others.
What it means in this context is that hyper-focusing isn’t always wise. During the call, I would sometimes pick up a pen or write notes in a journal, which is a practice I do in the real world during chats with friends and colleagues.
Because so many of us watch television these days, judging from the usage stats on Netflix, we tend to stare intently at the screen. No one is staring back at us, though, and even if the action movie is incredibly exciting, we can look down at a popcorn bowl once in a while or glance at our phones. No one will notice.
According to a recent study at Stanford, one of the causes for Zoom fatigue (which the researchers are quick to note is caused by any video chat app) is excessive eye contact. We look at people as though they are in a Tom Cruise movie and they look back at us in the same way. Before long, we start to get tired trying to maintain that level of focus.
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To quote the study: “In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased.”
The other causes include watching a thumbnail of yourself on screen (which is becoming more widely known as an irritant; people have figured out how to turn that off); not getting up to move around and staying locked in at our desks; and just the constant brain drain. I sometimes do several Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls in a row and feel like I need a nap. Sometimes I go a step further than that and actually take a real nap later.
Guess what? None of us are on Netflix and we’re not Tom Cruise.
My take on benevolent detachment in this context is that we don’t need to fixate so much. The other person doesn’t need to know we are in full focus mode at all times for an hour. In fact, if you have a cat, feel free to turn your chair around and pet it once in a while. Have a mini-fridge in your office stashed with water bottles? Go grab one. No one will even notice. If they do, tell them you are practicing benevolent detachment and, besides, you’re thirsty.
Above all, stop staring. Work is important, but it isn’t everything. So you aren’t looking everyone in the eye constantly. Maybe you decide to turn your camera off. Reserve the close attention, utmost concern and heavy doses of emotional connection for family members and friends.
Your cat probably needs some attention anyway.