….or social media, anything on a smartphone etc etc?

I am. Or at least I could be. I like the connection with people and interesting events and conversations that these things bring. At the same time, I am resistant to being drawn into a life on screen.

Last week I went to the Health and Wellbeing at Work conference – and then had a long celebratory weekend away in Venice (fab). The celebration was for birthdays, not to celebrate going to the conference.

One of the presentations which caught my attention was by occupational psychologists Dr Emma Russell and Alison Price about how to manage email and smartphone addiction. It’s something I’ve heard from coaching clients (talking about themselves or other people) as well as of course being something that we can hardly be unaware of in our daily lives. The pieces that have resonated with me include the following – any ring a bell for you?

Diversity of strategies

Emma’s research identified 88 different strategies that people had for dealing with email. This is particularly interesting in relation to conversation that happens in our house. My other half is very disciplined about never going home without an empty inbox and he files all emails according to a strict system. I manage about 80% of that system (as I write there are 19 messages in my inbox). But the huge range of strategies reflects all kinds of variables: personality, the technology available, the nature of the organisation and its email culture, our own motivation and skills, what we see as our priorities, our will power and energy and so on. There is no strategy that works for everyone, which makes it almost impossible for an organisation to impose one.

Addictive signs

Of these strategies, Emma identified some signs of addiction – defined as behaviours which had no functional end result. There is of course on-going debate about this – but for me, when I’m being really honest, I know when I am responding to an addictive compulsion to do something rather than taking a more functional, calmer approach. These were some of the signs that she had identified from her research:

- When I have been using email, I can feel disengaged from reality

- I experience “phantom alerts” ie. think my phone has buzzed/sent a notification but when I check it, it hasn’t

- I feel anxious about deleting email messages

- When I don’t have access to email (phone broken etc), I feel anxious

- I feel compelled to keep checking email

- I am comforted by the presence of my phone, wherever I am

I suspect the same applies to social media messages as well as email. I sometimes feel the last three, but haven’t experienced the first three. Ring any bells for you?

Checking but not actioning email

This was a particularly interesting finding – that checking email without actioning it is associated with lowered well-being/higher anxiety. It’s something I have got into the habit of doing, more times a day than is necessary. I reply to emails when I am on the computer in general – I can type better there and am more considered about it. But I check on my phone at other times of day. 

In the light of this, I’m now trying a new tack. I’m viewing dealing with emails as dealing with correspondence – which to my mind gives it a calmer, rather more appealing glow (if I try hard, for fleeting moment, I can imagine I’m a Bronte or Jane Austen, dealing with correspondence before turning to work. I know. It requires quite an imagination) – and not to check them at times other than when I am ready to action them.

This means physically leaving the phone out of reach on occasions (eg during the evening) so that I don’t find myself on automatic pilot. I don’t have notifications set to tell me each time a new email arrives – just as well because the research shows that people on average respond within 6 seconds to a notification. That’s quite an interruption rate. But – food for thought – I do have notifications for social media on my phone. It might be time to turn them off. 

Absent presenteeism

This was viewed as a particularly maladaptive strategy, at least by other people. We’ve all seen it – the person who’s not listening in a meeting because they are on their phone, doing emails or who knows what else (remember the MP caught playing Candy Crush Saga during a parliamentary committee meeting?); the friends and couples in restaurants where at least one person is focused on their phone (I observed this in our lovely hotel bar in Venice – at one point EVERY other couple or group had at least one person engrossed in their phones whilst sipping prosecco silently and completing ignoring their companions).  

How ready are we to admit we are that person? Mostly we like to think we are effectively multi-tasking, and are only having a quick look at the phone. But it’s invariably much more absorbing than can allow us to be simultaneously attentive to what’s happening around us, and takes us into an “absent-present” place for much longer than we realise. There are no quick fixes to this as the temptation is always there and many of the things we engage in on our phones are useful and nice.

I think the only way is to be aware of what you’re doing – and choose to leave the phone at home or in your bag  if you’re out in the evening or don’t take it with you into a meeting. Whilst away over the weekend, I set an “out of office” reply on my emails, and – freshly mindful of the research – didn’t check email at all. The slightly anxious feeling of wondering whether I was missing something important dissipated within a few hours and was replaced with blessed calm. 

And a few interesting stats….

I picked these up at a keynote by Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic at the Occupational Psychology conference in January (sorry I didn’t note his source for these).

- 60% of people reach for their phone before they reach for their partners or anything else when they wake up

- People with smartphones check them 150 times a day on average

- Last year there were more iphones sold than there were human births

And he raised the thought-provoking question that only those of us of a certain age can answer, “”What did you used to do in the time you are now online?”

Answers on a postcard. Or in a tweet.