Are you addicted to your inbox?

The check, refresh, close cycle and creating digital boundaries

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For the last couple of months, my son has been going through what I like to call ‘The Wild Banshee Phase’. It basically refers to a new habit he’s adopted that involves waking us up at all hours screaming blue murder about monsters and alike. It takes us a long time to get him settled down again and the bags around my eyes and the tension in my jaw are starting to become a permanent fixture.

But after some persevering and lots of reassurance, we seem to making progress and have enjoyed two nights of full interrupted sleep. Hallelujah! It’s been intense and exhausting and I’d quite like this phase to stop before the newest member of our brood arrives and adds his voice to the hysteria. If you have any tips, please send them to Frazzled Mother, End of The Road. London.

While feeling pretty tired, I did make time for some relaxation last week which involved listening to Emma Gannon’s Ctrl, Alt, Delete podcast. The latest episode features an interview with podcaster, author and journalist Anna Codrea-Rado on losing your job and going freelance. One of the topics Anna touched on was setting healthy boundaries, especially with things such as email which can become very addictive.

Anna said that while she tries to maintain good digital boundaries with automated email eplies and alike, she still finds it hard to stop checking her inbox. An email, Anna said, can make or break your day as a freelancer – from letting you know of a really cool work opportunity, to completely ruining your day with less positive news.

It was a truth that completely rang true for me. My inbox brings me work and excitement but can also cause me a lot of stress. I can think of so many examples of where I’ve been commissioned a great piece of work while pushing my son on the swings and bounced out of the park with renewed vigour and confidence. But I’ve also had afternoons completely ruined by a rude client email or bad news about a commission I've had my hopes pinned on. Having all of that information on my phone sometimes just doesn’t feel healthy.

Of course, I hear you say, I should have better boundaries. Why am I checking my emails when pushing my son on the swings, and why don’t I delete my Gmail app from my phone when enjoying an afternoon out? The truth is, like Anna, I am slightly addicted to it.

Thankfully most of the news my email delivers is good (unless it’s another update from my accountant about IR35) and I love the buzz of getting new jobs coming through. But when things go quiet, which they do from time to time, I develop obsessive levels of checking in hope of hearing back from a new client or getting a pitch commissioned. It's in these scenarios where my relationship with my inbox isn't great.

“No one is going to email you work at 10pm in the evening,” my husband once said as he caught me checking my inbox before bed. “Well they might,” I said. “I work with a lot of people in America,” I replied defensively. But I knew deep down that it was just a terribly bad habit.

The cycle often goes a bit like this…

Check, refresh, close. Check, refresh, close.

‘That’s it,” I’d think as my inbox stared blankly back at me. “I’m finished”.

“Oh but hang on…one new email”.

And so the cycle continues. It’s exhausting.

So what’s the answer if, like me, you find your mood relies far too much on your email? What I try to do when I feel the cycle rearing its clickable head is to completely detach myself from my phone. There’s no point in just deleting the Gmail app as I’ll just search for it in another browser anyway (I know myself too well). So I leave it on loud for phone calls - if my son is at nursery and I need to be contactable - but put it in another room.

Anna says that one of the only ways she tries to curb email checking is with Freedom – a clever app that allows you to block websites and apps that you find most distracting (such as Gmail). This can be especially useful if you do receive a lot of emails in a day and you find that the constant distraction stops you from actually getting on with your work.

According to Freedom’s research, every time you check email, a social feed, or respond to a notification, your mind requires 23 minutes of re-focus time to get back on task. That’s a lot of wasted time within a working day.

So how can we try to reclaim some willpower?

Jonny Pelter is the founder and CEO of Just Ask Max, the world’s first digital well-being service that’s designed to support workers with their digital lives and help to foster healthier relationships with technology. I asked him if he had any additional tips for regaining some balance, and unsurprisingly he had plenty of great advice for a number of scenarios that can help you to be more focussed and productive.

If you find that your emails are negatively impacting your mood and self-esteem

Jonny suggests trying to focus on positive emotional experiences. “Anyone or anything that pushes content (whether through email or any other media) that makes you feel negative or overwhelmed should either be gradually reduced or managed,” he suggests.

Be introspective: how is your habit affecting your mood?

“You should also try to be introspective. Try to reflect on what emotions you feel when reading emails from certain people. Is it stress, joy, exasperation, impatience? Once we identify how we feel, we can take steps to improve those interactions”.

Make time for a digital break

“Digital timers are also shown to be a good way of taking back some control. Research by Nathaniel Kleitman found our brains work in 90-minute rest-activity cycles,” explains Jonny.

“So take a 10-15 minute recharging break every hour and a half. Go for a walk outside, listen to music, exercise or meditate. Many of us burn-out because we’re working too much. Take this opportunity to take a step back to look at quality.”

"You can also apply the Pomodoro Technique using a digital timer like this to ensure you are having the right types of breaks helping to maintaining productivity, not getting overwhelmed by digital distractions and can stay focused”.

Additional tips for curbing email addiction

· Use in-built email filtering to sort emails without any input from you

· Create folders where emails are sent automatically without any intervention required on your side. Messages where you’re on CC, newsletters, receipts, company communications etc can all be automatically marked as read and sent to a folder.

· Focus on quality emails and try to reduce the total number of emails received, e.g. every spam email you get, unsubscribe and mark as spam or block the sender”.

Schedule distraction-free time

Check emails first thing, then 9:30 - 11am each day, block your calendar out (so colleagues are aware), turn devices OFF (not just on silent) and close your email.

How do you set boundaries into your working day and is email addiction something you struggle with? Let me know by leaving a comment below or tweet me @CatHufton

Until next time, have a wonderful undistracted week.

Cat x

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