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Let Me Answer This Email First

As part of Live Happy’s special series 90 Days to a Happier You, we’ve gathered experts from around the country with unbeatable advice about how we (and you!) can change habits and live better in 2016. Below is part one of Donna Stokes’ ongoing blog series as she attempts to unplug from work with the help of coach Christine Carter.

“Let’s hate her.” This was the message a co-worker accidentally sent to “All,” including me (“her”) in the first week of my first newspaper copy-editing job in the 1990s. The curmudgeonly slot editor had just loudly demanded to know why the new girl was the only one on the desk working.

Since then, my pronounced work ethic has won me more friends and job opportunities than enemies, but after 26 years of wearing the “workhorse” yoke, it’s time for a fresh approach. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, so I volunteered to overhaul my unhealthy work habits—and hopefully help you to do the same.

Always on the job

Work email wasn’t a problem until I got my first smartphone five or six years ago. My parents and husband didn’t say a word on our family vacations when I carried it in a plastic bag on ski-boat rides because the reception was better in the middle of the lake, though I’m sure they thought I was nuts. I muttered “in case of emergency,” but I still think they were on to me.

I finally recognized my behavior as compulsive this year during morning commutes, where the buzz of texts and emails trickling in taunted me to start sneaking peeks at every stoplight. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about; I see you out there doing the same thing!)

Addicted to email

Enter Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. While I saw my actions as the diligent behavior of someone who loves her job, Christine smelled a rat. “Remember Skinner’s rats?” she asked.

“There’s a glitch in our reward systems (and rats’) related to variable ratio reinforcement. If every email in 20 you get good news or praise, it drives your brain toward those checking behaviors.” The rats tested with variable ratio reinforcement went crazy trying again and again to find their reward, and I wasn’t far behind.

“You are not fulfilling your potential,” Christine said. “Change is uncomfortable, but I will coach you through it.”

Thanks to my first session with Christine and a schedule to follow, for one week now I have limited email checking to certain times of the workday. It may be beginner’s luck, but I am feeling much more relaxed and focused at home, work and in between. Just this morning, instead of hunching over my phone at a stoplight, I made eye contact with an elderly Labrador retriever in the backseat of the car next to me. I swear he gave me the nod of approval.

Read Donna’s coach Christine’s “6 Steps to Unplug From Work”

Want more? Listen to Donna’s coach Christine explain how to unplug from work on our podcast!

Donna Stokes is Live Happy’s managing editor.

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