Written by : Christine Carter, Ph.D. 

6 Steps to Unplug From Work

As part of Live Happy’s series 90 Days to a Happier You, we’ve gathered experts from around the country with unbeatable advice about how we can change habits and live better in 2016. Below, in the first part of her ongoing blog series, happiness expert Christine Carter, Ph.D., walks us through the steps of successfully unplugging from work.

Lately it seems like more and more of my coaching clients have been asking for guidance with one specific challenge: Help me unplug!

Such was the cry for help that came from Donna Stokes, managing editor of Live Happy, as part of the “90 Days to a Happier You” project. Donna’s life was typical; she was spending most of her waking existence monitoring her email. She’d begin each day by checking email at home before breakfast, which often derailed her morning routine. Once she got to work, the emailing continued—before, during and after meetings. Lunch? She’d “catch up” on email and then maybe take a short walk—with her phone, in case an urgent email or text came in. (When I asked her for an example of what could be so urgent that it couldn’t wait 20 minutes, she couldn’t give one.)

Donna’s email checking continued long into the evening, once she’d left the office. For example, she’d check email on her phone while waiting for dinner in a restaurant with her husband.

Sound familiar? If so, you, too, could use an email intervention. Here are six simple steps to end your email addiction.

1. Decide what you’re going to do with all that free time

If you are going to spend less time monitoring your email (and social media feeds, and anything else that is constantly nagging you for attention), what would be a more productive or joyful way for you to spend your time? Donna wanted to spend more time doing focused, intelligent, creative work during the day, and she wanted to spend more time relaxing, exercising and hanging out with her husband before and after work. You can motivate yourself to unplug by actually putting these things on your calendar. Block off time in your schedule for activities like “Read with hubby” and “Do focused writing/thinking,” or whatever will motivate you.

2. Schedule two or three specific times per day to check your messages

I counsel many of my clients to check email first thing in the morning and in the late afternoon—and that’s it. Here is the key: During those times, you’ll need to block out enough time to get through new emails, and, if possible, all the way to the bottom of your inbox. If a particular email is going to take more than 5 minutes to read and respond to, put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to a task list. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily.

3. Turn off all your alerts

Unless you are actively checking your email and messages, you don’t need to know what messages are coming in because you’ll be devoting your full attention to something else. So turn off all notifications on your desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone. Vibrate counts; turn it off. Now, do this for your text messages and all of your social media feeds. Breathe.

(Note: Even if, through the strength of your iron-clad will, you are able to resist reading a message that comes in, if you see or hear or feel some sort of notification, your brain has still been interrupted by that alert. Even a millisecond-long hijacking of your attention will make you less focused, more irritable and less able to resist other temptations.)

4. Hide the bowl of candy

If you were trying to eat less candy, would you carry a bowl of it around with you? Would you put it on your nightstand and reach into it first thing in the morning? And then carry it with you to the bathroom? And then set it next to you while you try to eat a healthy breakfast? And then put it on your dashboard? I didn’t think so.

So keep that smartphone tucked away until you actually need it. Think of it as a tool, like a hammer, that you don’t need to pull out until one of your strategically designated times. (If you are a parent, make the adjustments you need to in case there is a call from your child’s school or another kind of emergency.) Get creative: Dig up your old-fashioned alarm clock, update your car’s navigation system, and put that digital camera back in your bag for the times when getting a call or text will tempt you even if the sound, vibrate, and all other alerts are off. See note in Step 3, above.

5. Tell people what you are doing

Tell folks you are working with a productivity expert (that’s me), and she’s coaching you to find more focus, flow and enjoyment at work and in life. You’ll only be checking your email at two or three set times per day. Tell them you expect to be able to respond more thoughtfully to email this way, and that when you’re with them, you’ll be fully present. Perhaps invite them to a smartphone-free lunch.

6. Notice what happens

It will not all be pleasant. Notice the difficult bits with curiosity (and maybe humor). How do you feel during the digital detox period? How are people reacting? Your tension levels will likely drop, and you’ll probably be less stressed. How does this feel in your body? Really see the people around you, now that you are looking up from your phone. Smile.

Read Christine’s second blog here, and her final blog here.

To see Christine’s recommendations in action, read coaching “subject” Donna Stokes’ 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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