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High Hopes for Unplugging

As we wrap up the Live Happy 90 Days to a Happier You challenge, managing editor Donna Stokes writes a final blog about overcoming her email addiction at work and at home.

A cheerful ant starts up a steep hill carrying a chunk of food five times his size on his back. He pauses to say to a concerned-looking ladybug along the path, “I’ll quit when it stops being fun.” Nothing could better represent my work philosophy for the past two decades!

Mike Twohy’s witty illustration in The New Yorker highlights the universal truth that we enjoy our work, even when it seems impossible. Sometimes especially when it seems impossible. And all the better if someone is there to notice. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before in this series, smart phones, web mail and social media have been game changers for me on the work-satisfaction front.

The 24-hour work cycle

What coach Christine Carter, Ph.D., has taught me over the past 90 days is that being continuously plugged-in makes that to-do list much more all-consuming and stressful than it needs to be. Hand that hardworking ant a cell phone and see how much fun he’s having the fifth time he gets an email or text from the ladybug asking for progress reports.

Email—even of the work variety—wouldn’t be so addictive if it didn’t sometimes convey good news or praise, or make us feel productive, necessary and connected. Yet, for me, the cathartic lessons from Christine are about taking control of my email use and leaving time in each day for both clear-headed focus time at the office as well as downtime after hours to recharge and entertain rewarding pursuits unrelated to work.

All triumphs are individual, but here’s what’s working for me:

  • Set and stick to a schedule for each workday to designate focus time. It takes at least twice as long to complete a task if you read every email as it comes in. Productivity and focus are huge rewards.
  • If you know you’ll be traveling or foresee other disruptions, revise the schedule and stick to that one.
  • Plan specific times each week that you will be completely unplugged, like Tuesdays after 6 p.m. and all day Saturday. Then reinforce expectations among co-workers and even family members that you won’t be checking social media or email at those times and likely haven’t fallen down a well.
  • If you are tempted to check email during unscheduled times, turn off the phone, put it in the trunk or otherwise keep it out of reach.

My biggest challenges:

  • Why is it so tempting to try to make the morning drive time more productive? Interminable stoplights are still a “reach for the phone” trigger.
  • Getting my work inbox down to zero every day, or even every week, is a challenge. A range of 45 to 115 is still better than 14,700, but I’m not quite there yet.
  • Deadline weeks bring chaos. Back and forth email is a critical part of the job, so I’m learning to go with what works to get things done during crunch time.

Key revelations:

  • My colleagues tell me that when I don’t send emails on evenings and weekends that it helps them, too. Even if they know a reply isn’t expected they still get the sense that maybe they should be working, too, if others are.
  • Family members, not supervisors or co-workers, are often the ones most disturbed when I don’t respond immediately to texts or email.
  • Checking email can be a crutch. It’s easier than tackling tough assignments that require focus, so be careful if you start thinking that checking email is a “break.”
  • Now that I’m paying more attention when I reach for the phone, I realize in off hours it’s often out of boredom: during commercials or waiting in line. It’s much better to breathe, exercise or daydream instead.

I miss my coach! It is so helpful to stay on track when you have regular check-ins. Luckily, I can go to christinecarter.com any time for new tips and inspiration. Thank you, Christine!

Read Donna's first blog here. Catch up on her second blog here.

Listen to Donna and other Live Happy staffers discuss how the 90-Day impacted their lives on our podcast.

Donna Stokes is the managing editor at Live Happy magazine.

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