24/7 Availability: The New Social Contract

Dating back to ancient times, the idea of a social contract is not a new one. There are certain universal, unwritten rules between all groups of people living together to ensure their optimal functioning and wellbeing. In our own culture, for instance, there are countless: go fast in the fast lane, don’t talk loud in elevators, use earbuds when listening to music in public, etc. And, with the advent of smartphones and social media, there’s a whole host of recent additions to this list — including the burden of being available 24/7.

You see, as our phones have transitioned from accessories to necessities, it’s become expected we be reachable at all moments. In the past, if we wanted to connect with someone, we had the option of calling their landline, going to their house or writing them a letter. If we didn’t receive an immediate response, it was nothing to be anxious about; we could just assume we’d missed them.

Now, however, our phones are almost extensions of ourselves and are with us at all times. As a result, we tend to feel a certain obligation to answer texts in an instant (no matter what time we receive them), message others back when we can’t get to their call ASAP and maintain an active status on social media. If we don’t, there’s a good chance people will be irritated at best, or assume we’ve died at worst.

Still, even if it’s expected, it’s exhausting to feel “on” and available all the time. It would be nice to just get a break sometimes, wouldn’t it? So how obliged are we to being reachable 24/7? Is it possible to keep phones in our lives while separating ourselves from the complications that come with them?

The most obvious solution to this dilemma would be to disconnect more. But, of course, that’s easier said than done. Instead, it might be more beneficial to set intentional boundaries surrounding our tech use. In practice, this could look like a vast number of things:


  • Checking phone notifications only during set time windows.

  • Checking social media from a laptop, instead of a phone, to avoid constant refreshing.

  • Setting up a weekend autoresponder.

  • Sending brief responses when possible.

  • Utilizing the Do Not Disturb (DND) option which allow calls from certain contacts and no one else.

It’s best to experiment with various strategies to find something that works, and to let friends, co-workers, clients (and even family members) know our limits beforehand and how to reach us if needed.

Aside from limiting our phone use, we might also work on creating more space for doing the things we love as a means to reclaim our unconnected time. Which activities help us find our flow? Which ones make us forget ourselves and lose track of time? Getting caught up in a book, a knitting project or a favorite song reminds us of what’s possible when we disconnect.

That said, being available 24/7 is one social contract it should be okay to break. While we might get a little grief for it at first, prioritizing our unconnected life is both beneficial to us and a positive model for our culture at large.

As Anne Lamott wrote, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”