Written by : Christine Carter, Ph.D. 

5 Ways to Stay Engaged and Keep Email at Bay

As we continue with Live Happy’s 90 Days to a Happier You challenge, happiness expert Christine Carter, Ph.D., explains how we can stay unplugged from work once we have begun the habit.

We all understand that when we first attempt to drive a car or ride a bike, we’ll make mistakes. Behavior change is no different; it’s a process of slipping, learning from the mistake, and trying again.”―John C. Norcross, Changeology

Unless you are some sort of superhero, you will not be able to cure yourself of your email-checking addiction perfectly the first time. Research indicates that 88 percent of people fail to keep a new resolution; in my experience as a human being and a coach, 100 percent of people trying to radically reduce their screen time lapse in their attempt. So what to do if you’re struggling?

1. Don’t get too emotional about your slip or succumb to self-criticism.

Instead, forgive yourself. Remind yourself that lapses are part of the process, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

2. Figure out what the problem is.

This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing your trip-ups. What temptation can you remove? Were you stressed or tired or hungry—and if so, how can you prevent that the next time? Figure it out, and make a specific plan for what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation again. What will you do differently? What have you learned from your slip? For Donna Stokes, managing editor at Live Happy, who was still tempted to fill every moment with “productivity”—especially in the car at long stoplights or in line at the drive-through—I advised she keep her phone out of reach in the trunk of her car.

3. Beware the “What the hell” effect.

Say you’ve sworn not to check your email before breakfast, but you’ve been online since your alarm went off…three hours ago. You’re now at risk for what researchers formally call the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE) and jokingly call the “what the hell effect.” If you’ve already blown your plan today, why not go hog wild? What the hell—you can begin again tomorrow, right? Wrong. The more damage you do during your technology binge, the more likely you are to slip again the next day, and the less confidence you’ll have in yourself that you can change. So as soon as you notice you’ve slipped, go back to your plan. Double down, friends, double down.

4. Rededicate yourself to your resolution (now, in this instant, not tomorrow).

Why do you want to make the changes that you do? How will you benefit? Do a little deep breathing and calm contemplation of your goals. If it is occasionally necessary for work to spill over into private time, I advise clients like Donna to plan a specific hour or two for that purpose and not to worry about it the rest of the weekend or evening.

5. Above all, comfort yourself on the way to your goal.

To boost follow-through on our good intentions, we need to feel safe and secure. When we are stressed, our brain tries to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. A dopamine rush makes temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item….like the snooze button instead of the morning jog, onion rings instead of mixed greens, or that easy taxi to work rather than the less-than-comfortable urban bike ride.

So sometimes the best thing that we can do to help ourselves unplug is to preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways before our brain takes matters into its own hands. What makes you feel safe and secure—and doesn’t sabotage your goals? Perhaps you need to seek out a hug or take a walk outside in order to keep to your goals and refrain from checking emails.

Read Christine’s first blog, 6 Steps to Unplug From Work here.

To see Christine’s recommendations in action, read coaching “subject” Donna Stokes’ 2nd blog here.

Want more? Listen to Christine on our podcast as she explains how to unplug from work, here.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and senior fellow at University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is a sought-after coach and speaker, and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.


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