Obsessive email-checking: The Addiction and the Antidote

Obsessive email-checking: Part 1'Obsessive email-checking is making us a generation of idiots', Professor Sir Cary Cooper, writing in The Guardian, May 2015


I do it.  My husband does it.  As do my kids, my desk neighbour, my boss and almost all my clients.  The scourge of the smart phone, widely proclaimed as work-life balance liberator, saviour of flexible working is, in fact, proving to be our captor rather than our redeemer as we succumb to a new addiction. 


Cary Cooper was speaking at the British Psychological Society in Liverpool when he made this proclamation in his speech on 'Mental Capital and Wellbeing at Work'.  The provocative statement was just a few minutes of the complete lecture, but these were the words that were seized upon by the audience and media like.  Why? Because we recognise the truth - and it hurts! - this unending, rampant electronic overload which is relentlessly ensnaring us at work, rest and play.


Now, we all appreciate the benefits of the 24/7 e-world.  I for one, a survivor of the era of the clunky, manual audits of the 1980s (can you believe that the auditor of yesteryear used to print out spools of electronic data and check it with coloured pens!), would have it no other way.  So is it not a little rich to accuse email of rendering us a generation of idiots?


In making his case, Professor Cooper cites the negative effects that constant device-checking has on our work-life balance, quality of life and health and wellbeing in general. He points to research which supports the basic human need for a measure of control over work, which includes having a manageable workload and boundaries between work and rest of life. Further, he alludes to the damaging impact on productivity at work and the quality of social relationships which are essential for our wellbeing. 


The antidotes, he suggests, include workplace policies to protect employees, with email-curfewing outside office hours; guidelines to manage the proliferation and volume of e-comms, as well as coaching on better aligning communication mediums to particular circumstances. 


But the angle he doesn't explore is the one that is dearest to my own heart; I believe we are our own worst enemies.  And by way of illustration I need look no further than what I am doing right now - writing this article.  How many times have I flipped out of word into my inbox? I switched off 'message alert' years ago but it doesn't stop the craving to keep checking.  I check inboxes, instant messaging, texts and social media - regularly, constantly and compulsively.  I know it wastes time, interrupts my flow, reduces my productivity and will keep me longer at my laptop, indoors on a sunny Sunday afternoon when I could be out in the garden enjoying the coveted rations of an English summer.


I don't consider myself an idiot, Professor Cooper, but I have to admit to some fairly idiotic behaviour in this area.  Which is why I am on a quest to find some answers.  What I can tell you, intrepid reader, is that the solution is in the colossal power of our habits and once again neuro-science can save us from our primeval selves.  Join me in Part Two to learn the weapons of defence against  Einstein's dark portend , 'I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will then have a generation of idiots'.  Do not succumb...resistance is NOT futile!



Obsessive Email Checking: The Antidote

'I check inboxes, instant messaging, texts and social media - regularly, constantly and compulsively'.  That was me, last month, baring my soul and lamenting the fact that, in Professor Sir Cary Cooper's world, I am an exemplar of his so-called 'generation of idiots'.

One month on, and I've been in therapy; I've been studying Charles Duhigg's book, 'The Power of Habit'. Subtitled, 'Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change', not only have I been reading and learning, I've been working the actions too.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Habits shape us, but they can also make or break us.  Good habits build discipline, help us develop useful behaviours and enable us to reach our personal and professional goals.  Habits are powerful, so powerful that once built they can never be completely eradicated - hence the bloody and often futile battle to change so called 'addictive' behaviours.   It's this permanent encoding into the brain that makes us susceptible to straying back to our old ways, even when we think we've cracked it.

But the good news is that habits can be 'over-written'; while the ghost of unwanted behaviour may still be etched deep into your own personal hard disk, with strong commitment we can all build strong, new routines which serve, rather than enslave us. 

Now doesn't this sound exactly what we need as we wilt under the weight of 24/7 technology?


Halting the Habit Loop

Changing unwanted behaviour is, according to Duhigg, all about understanding the habit loop, a simple process made up of cue, routine and reward. Here's your step by step guide:

Step 1: What routine do you want to change?

For me, it's stopping the compulsive checking of my smart phone for email, instant messages and social media updates when I should be concentrating on delivering a piece of work. This is the routine I want to curb, but I also need to figure out the cue that triggers the behaviour and identify the reward I'm getting from this repeated pattern.

Step 2: Experiment with reward

Rewards satisfy cravings, so I need to ascertain the craving that is driving my actions. I can do this by experimenting with different rewards. When I feel the urge to check my smart phone, I consciously pause and endeavour to satisfy it with a different response. I try several experiments (taking a break for a coffee, relieving my sitting position, walking round, stretching, having a snack and doing just two minutes mindful meditation). And while all of these activities serve to distract me from the obsessive checking, it's the last one that really hits the spot. A mindful pause acted like a metaphorical punctuation point allowing me to regroup, collect my thoughts and then continue with my flow. 

Step 3: Isolate the cue

Without focussed attention it is impossible to determine, from memory alone, which cue triggers the unwanted behaviour. Duhigg suggests working through a checklist of five cue categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or the immediately preceding action. And lo and behold, once I started paying attention, I figured that it is the last of these that is my undoing. For me, the cue is the immediately preceding action, that is, finishing a sentence in the report or article I'm working on (yes it was that frequent and obsessive for me!)

Step 4: Have a plan

So once the habit loop is determined, a plan can be made. My loop was: excessive smart phone checking (routine), triggered by completing a sentence (cue), requiring a regrouping of my thoughts (reward). My plan is to take a mindful pause at the end of each punctuation point, to bring me back into the 'here and now' and if my mind strays to my smart phone, I remind myself that the time to check is at the end of this work 'session' (usually an hour). 


It sounds simple but it hasn't been easy. I'm currently separating myself from the pesky device during these pre-ordained work sessions, to help cement the resolve and build a new habit. And that's the thing, habits are hard to break, they are buried deep, their spectre can never be completely erased but repeated re-engineering can build a new and more beneficial habit. And it is working; I've written this article over two/three condensed sessions of around 45 minutes each which is a big improvement on dragging it out over a full day. Why don't you try it too? Just think what you might be able to do with some new brain engineering!

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