Techniques like ‘check your inbox at set hours’ have missed out on smartphones.
Checking emails is an addictive behavior. Seeing new incoming email messages activates our reward system, mainly due to that feeling of inclusion or “importance” we get when emails are coming our way. With the use of smartphones, this feeling has been amplified.
But seeing an email notification right when you go to sleep or as soon as you wake up can lead to undesired stress in the moments when you need to wind down. In turn, the email-checking habit prevents one from relaxing right before bed or from being clear-minded when they wake up.
Email notifications disabled. Now what?
I get too many emails. From employees, clients, partners, investors, and glorious spammers; that’s just the reality of being a startup founder.
I used to feel that being responsive and constantly being notified of what’s going on was far more important and pressing than me having some “off” time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As Jim Kwik said it:
“Inbox is nothing but a convenient organization system for other people’s agenda for your life.”
So, even though I began to initiate relaxing activities when I was taking time “off”, receiving email notifications caused a miserable disruption to my relaxation attempts.
The obvious solution to me at the time was to disable all of my smartphone notifications, including inbox, in order to avoid being interrupted or distracted by other people’s probably-non-urgent “needs”.
That did not really move the needle.
Even without the the influx of notifications, I still found myself involuntarily checking my inbox during spare moments, or worse, immediately upon waking up, because, well… life/work happens while you’re sleeping, especially if you’re working with multiple timezones.
The Morning Routine
During that time, I was also working on building a productive 1–2 hour morning routine that I could rinse and repeat for enhanced work performance and personal wellbeing. It goes as follows:
- Wake up early (5:00am-6:30am)
- Take 5 minutes to jot down a list of 3–6 things to accomplish (both personally and professionally) that day
- Take 1–2 hours to invest in personal well-being and growth (reading, exercising, journaling, learning, etc..)
- Only when all of the above is done, start the workday
As humans, security and control are things we gravitate towards and require in our day-to-day. This morning routine worked well, as it guaranteed a structure that enabled me to achieve more and better prioritize my actions/decisions, thus granting me the needed feeling of security and control.
This sounds great, but after a while, I started to notice a pattern where, on some mornings, this routine was completely shattered.
The “Blue” Days
These are the days that started with me checking my inbox the moment I would wake up. I call these the “blue” days.
These were the days where my morning was completely re-shuffled. I was waking up to the blue light generated by my phone screen. What’s worse, I would check my inbox before I had even gotten out of bed.
This was becoming a problem.
Instead of my brain waking up in a relaxed alpha-theta state (read about brainwaves here), I forced my body into an undesirable cortisol rush. I was bringing myself a step closer to developing chronic stress, thereby wreaking havoc on what should have been a focused morning with clear priorities.
Instead of taking the time to write a list, invest in myself, and think clearly, I was rushing into starting my workday very early, with flawed prioritization, focusing on what seemed to be “urgent”.
Although I was accomplishing the vast majority of the important professional goals on my list, I was missing out on an equally important aspect of my sense of control and security: personal growth.
The Solution: Turn Off Your Phone. Not Really.
Once I recognized this was a problem, I began the habit of turning off my phone before I went to bed. I would keep it off in the morning until I had completed my morning routine and got myself ready to start my day. It helped. A lot.
Soon thereafter, however, I realized that, although my mornings became consistently focused when my phone was off, I would get distracted and lose my presence at times when spending time with the people I care about. This was a tough one to solve.
I would find myself in situations where I was managing to be present and relaxed when spending time with my family and friends. However, as soon as there was a pause in the harmony of the rendezvous and the opportunity for us to check our virtual selves/phones presented itself, I would slip up. My conditioned motor activity would complete an automatic procedure which ended with a prolonged stare at my inbox, followed by the stress to handle the situation of the ever-increasing number of unread emails. Well done, brain, now I am back at work.
One would argue that turning off your phone when you don’t want to be distracted or when you’re spending time with the people you care about would solve it.
That doesn’t work.
Your phone will be turned on again at some point after you turn it off and, similar to the feeling of yearning to know what’s happening in life while you’re on a plane would haunt you to check everything the moment you land, the same happens when you disconnect, albeit for a short period.
We’ve been conditioned to feel a sense of security when our virtual life is within reach. Going against that condition will create longing, which will trigger an intense reaction to what we have missed.
Notifications and Turning Off My Phone Didn’t Solve My Inbox Syndrome. What Did?
After struggling with this for a while, I found a great plugin called Boomerang Pause that allowed me to just hit pause on my inbox.
It didn’t prevent emails from entering my inbox, it simply kept hiding them, until I manually hit resume.
Just like with many addictive habits, using an external intervention tool is sometimes necessary to heal. I didn’t develop enough self-control to avoid checking my inbox, so I used an external intervention to hide my incoming emails when it wasn’t imperative to see them.
This trick has thus far been a major factor in my increased productivity and happiness. I still manage to reply to people in a timely manner, properly run and grow a company, but most importantly, I am able to manage my stress which, in my view, is a soft-skill that is required for high performance in this day and age.
Managing Stress and Performance
If you look into the Yerkes-Dodson law, you’ll find that a certain level of arousal is needed in order to achieve optimal performance. However, too much of it or too little of it will impair your performance completely.
Although this is not an article on how to stay at the optimal arousal state, it is still important to shed some light on the negative role your inbox plays in exposing you to stress-triggers throughout the different parts of the day.
Moreover, sleep quality is tightly related to your learning ability, memory, and physical and mental health. Regularly checking your inbox right before you slumber can disrupt your sleep quality and, although you might not feel it immediately, will hurt your health long-term.
Pausing your inbox can both improve your sleep and keep you in the right optimal arousal state by protecting you from these stress-induced emails coming at the wrong times.
To explain this visually, I have created this graph that shows how to manage the stress throughout the day in order to reach the Yerkes-Dodson optimal arousal and performance state in the long-term.
I wrote this hoping that sharing my experience would help people who work in demanding jobs manage their stress a bit better.
I am still researching and exploring the other myriad ways in which our productivity can be enhanced, but one thing is for sure — prioritizing our mental health by optimizing our stress levels during the different parts of the day plays the biggest role.