We’re probably all familiar with Dr Cloud and Dr. Townsend’s perennial bestselling book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, written over 25 years ago. That book has helped countless numbers of people get their lives under control by setting up healthy boundaries for husbands and wives, parents and children, dating relationships and more. Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend have just updated their book to apply to an area of our lives I think we are all far too familiar with: the digital age. Perhaps more than ever, this area of technology, media, and interconnectedness needs to be confronted head on in order to establish healthy boundaries that can help glorify God through healthy relationships. Thankfully Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend have recognized the new age we are in and have shared their biblically grounded advice that can help us, our ministry teams, and our congregations. This excerpt from their book will help bring to light to why it’s necessary to address this topic and set healthy boundaries in this area.
When I (Henry) was a kid, I was a competitive golfer and spent a lot of time at the golf course, especially in the summer. One of the regular players at the course was a doctor who routinely came by in the middle of the day. Not that he was there every day, or even all of the day, but it seemed to me he didn’t have “a real job.” He just hung out a lot at the golf course. Pretty cool job he has, I thought, playing golf every day.
One day I finally asked him, “How can you be here and not be at work?”
“I am at work,” he said, pointing to the pager on his belt. “I work emergency surgeries, and they page me when I’m needed. The hospital is only two minutes away. Since they can reach me when I’m on call, it frees me to be here until a surgery is needed. I can get there even before the ambulance arrives. It’s great!”
Wow! How cool is that? I thought. To be at work without being at work. Now that’s the kind of job I want someday!
Be careful what you wish for. Fast-forward a few decades and being “on call”—reachable anytime anywhere by virtually anyone—is a routine fact of life. And not just for me, but for all of us—kids as well as adults.
Welcome to the On-Call Life
When I wished for the kind of job the surgeon at the golf course had, I was essentially saying, I don’t want work to tie me down to a physical space. I want work to be able to find me wherever I am so I can go anywhere and have total freedom. It’s a nice wish, but as we all now know, it’s not without its consequences.
At the time, an on-call life still had limits, and being on call was mostly reserved for people who had to deal with urgent or emergency situations. You could be contacted only if you had a pager, and the only ones who could page you were the select few who had the pager number—members of an office staff, an answering service, a hospital, and so on. There were boundaries on both who could find you and when you could be found.
Next came the cell phone. At first mobile phones were expensive to use (forty cents or more a minute) and not everyone had one. Those who did used them sparingly. But within a few years, improved technology brought the costs down and it wasn’t long until everyone had a cell phone. Now you could be found anywhere at any time by anyone who had your number.
Then came the internet and email, readily available to everyone with a desktop computer. Now you could be “paged” not just in case of emergency, but pretty much anytime. Your boss—or anyone else—could communicate with you or give you work any hour of the day or night. Even emails from friends made you feel like you “had to respond” or do something. There was no escaping anymore. Work officially leaped the boundaries of the brick-and-mortar workplace and made itself literally “at home” in your personal space and time.
And then things got a lot worse. How? The cell phone and the internet got married and had a baby: the smart people invented the “smartphone,” which now meant that anyone could use an email, a text, and even an old-school phone call to find and reach you anytime anywhere for any reason. The on-call life wasn’t limited to when you were at a desk using a computer, because now you were carrying this technological intruder right in your pocket—at all times.
And just when you thought communication technology had finally reached its boundary-busting limits, someone decided that not only should your phone be in your life, but your life should also be on your phone. Social media. Now the number of people you had access to—and who had access to you—exploded. Consider just a few of these platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Instagram. It’s mindboggling. I remember that when it all first began, even Microsoft founder Bill Gates got off Facebook because he said he had too many friend requests and it was taking too much of his time.
That pretty much brings us to the present, where there are no more default boundaries around technology to protect you. Before smartphones and the internet, you were reachable only “at work” or “at home,” meaning there were real places that physically separated your work space and time from your personal space and time. Time and space were the natural and default boundaries that protected you. After your work time was done, you were “off”—you left work at the workplace, went home, and did whatever else you wanted, protected from work by time and space.
The same natural boundaries also applied to relationships and activities outside of work. If extended family, friends, or neighbors wanted to communicate with you, they had to ring a doorbell, call you on the phone, or even write you a letter and (gasp) wait several days for it to reach you. You were protected naturally by the boundaries of both time and space. But no longer.
And so far, we have just talked about work and personal time. But this breach of boundaries goes further than that. Even within work or your personal life, people can reach you directly who used to have to go through some sort of channel to do that. If you worked in a company, for example, they had to go through an assistant or leave a voice mail. To make a personal connection, they had to go through a mutual friend to find some way to talk or meet. But now, think of this: others just give out your email or cell number, and all of those people can bypass any gatekeeper or protections. They have direct access to you.
When you add up all of these fairly recent developments, you find that they invade all of life, much more than just upsetting the “work-life balance,” whatever that is. They have intruded into all of life—period.
So, what does all this mean? Something very important: boundaries on technology and social media are now entirely up to you.
Taken from the updated and expanded edition of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life (Zondervan, available October 2017). Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend updated the perennial bestseller throughout and added a new section on boundaries in the digital age.
You can get a copy of the updated and expanded edition of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life from Zondervan and Amazon:
Dr. Henry Cloud
Dr. Henry Cloud is an acclaimed leadership expert, psychologist, and New York Times best-selling author with his books selling more than 10 million copies. Dr. Cloud lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tori, and their two daughters, Olivia and Lucy.
Dr. John Townsend
Dr. John Townsend is a respected leadership consultant, psychologist, and New York Times best-selling author. He and his wife, Barbi, have two sons, Ricky and Benny, and live in Newport Beach, California.