Quick: When's the last time you checked your e-mail? If you're like most Americans, the answer is likely within the last 15 minutes — even if you're not at work. And if you carry a PDA in your pocket, your problem is probably far worse. Some doctors estimate more than 11 million people have e-mail habits that interfere with their lives. Are you one of them?
Forming a deep relationship with your inbox can eat away at your real-life relationships — you know, the ones with your friends, kids, or significant other...those people you used to converse with face-to-face.
The good news, though, is spotting an e-addiction and correcting it isn't too tough. First, recognize the signs:
- You check your e-mail more than once an hour, even when you aren't on the clock.
- You look at every message that comes in, as it comes in, either at or away from the office.
- You feel the need to respond to messages instantly or within minutes of when they arrive.
- You interrupt real, in-person activities on a regular basis to deal with e-mail.
- E-mail has, in some way, interfered with your regular life — be it in the form of sleep loss, relationship troubles, stress, or any other noticeable effect.
If you're still here and haven't toggled windows to check your inbox, here are some tips to help curb your electronic enslavement:
1. Remember, there's no such thing as an e-mail emergency. Remind yourself that no e-mail is going to self-destruct if you don't read it right away. If something is incredibly urgent, the sender will call, text, or otherwise reach you.
2. Give yourself a curfew. Treat yourself like a teenager. Decide on a specific cut-off time for sending and reading messages, and stick to it. If you get home at 6, commit to shutting down the computer at 7. You'll thank yourself in a year when your real life has returned.
3. Schedule e-mail times. Set specific times during which you'll deal with e-mail, and don't do it outside of those windows. Maybe it's 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch, and 10 mid-afternoon. Stick to it and watch your day suddenly open up with extra time.
4. Set aside a "NO E-MAIL" day. A bigger break from the ol' send-and-receive might just be the best thing to cure your compulsion. A once a week change in routine can help you keep things in perspective, both psychologically and biologically. "Response prevention is the thing that's most helpful," Dr. Robert Gore, a Beverly Hills psychologist specializing in addiction, explains. "You don't do the thing that you find compulsively appealing. Once people learn that, their brains actually change on a biological level." If you can't cope with taking a full day off, try only checking your e-mail for five minutes Saturday morning — then leaving the rest of the day e-free.
5. Take a vacation. Once you're ready to really kick things up a notch, schedule yourself a full week away from electronics. It's just what the doctor ordered. "I think most people in the world could really benefit by having a day that's completely free of any electronic mediation — to sort of get back to things that are more natural, more deeply fulfilling than all these electronic gadgets," Gore says.
The final step may be the toughest of all, but it could make a world of difference: Put the damned Blackberry down. Turn your PDA off when you get home, or at least disable the instant e-mail checking function. Your messages will wait. Your life will not.