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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Step Away From the Email: How to Beat Your Addiction to Your Phone

person holding phone

At some point, almost everyone becomes addicted.

For me, it started when, a few years ago, I began a new job that allowed me to merge my work emails onto my personal phone.

“This is great,” I’d thought at the time. In my prior position, I hadn’t been allowed to have work email on my phone, and the phone itself had become a weapon against me—any unknown number could be someone at work, alerting me to an error I’d made or calling me back to the office. I didn’t like that racing to the office each morning to open my email provoked anxiety: Who had written in the night? What emergencies were in store for the day? On what project was I already behind?

I liked—and still like—having more control over my inbox. But I soon realized that my compulsive need to read and respond to every message as it came in had made me a full-fledged phone addict. I carried my phone with me everywhere and looked at it all the time—checking for work emails when I ran out for five minutes to grab lunch; taking it with me when I went to get coffee or a snack; keeping it under my napkin on my lap when I went out with friends after work; absent-mindedly scrolling through it on my walk or subway ride home. And I wasn’t just addicted to work emails and texts; I was spending more time than I ever had on Facebook, Instagram, and—okay—Running with the Bulls.

Sounds familiar? If you exhibit these warning signs, odds are good that you, too, have become addicted to your phone:

  1. You check every buzz, blip, or beep as soon as it comes in.
  2. You hear phantom buzzes that make you reach for your phone—and you feel a bit disappointed when you behold a blank screen.
  3. Your phone is always on or within five feet of your physical person.
  4. Your friends have hinted (or straight up told you) that your constant phone-checking is getting annoying.

The good news? I broke free, and so can you. Here’s a five-step process for curbing your addiction—without full-on breaking up with your phone.

1. Take Stock of the Situation

First things first: What are you so afraid of missing, anyway? If you work in most industries, the emails you’re receiving when you’re away from your desk are not indicative of an emergency. Just because you have immediate access to emails doesn’t mean you have to (or even should) respond to them immediately.

When you receive an email after-hours and it makes you anxious, re-think the situation. If you had received that same message during the workday, would it have elicited the same level of stress (or even necessitated a response)? Unless you’re working on something high-priority, it’s likely fine for you to respond the next day (and what the sender expects). Cut yourself some slack—it’s okay to say “no” to a 24/7 response rate.

2. Set Boundaries

Something that can be hard to do—especially if you’re just beginning a new job—is to set boundaries. It’s important, though, that you advocate for your own work-life balance, because no one else will do it for you. For example, if you’ve become used to responding to work emails at all hours of the night, then your colleagues will come to expect that level of immediacy in your response.

So, wean them off that habit, and set time limits for yourself to engage with work email. Re-train your correspondents to expect a response from you only during work hours. If you can’t cut yourself off at the end of the workday right away, start by designating one set hour, say, from 8-9 PM, in which you can check and respond to your messages. If someone is persistent, shoot off a quick message on your phone letting her know that you’ve received the message and explaining that you’ll respond in full when you’re back in the office.

3. Communicate

If you’re anxious because you’ve established a precedent in which you frequently check and respond to messages, or you’re nervous to attend an event for fear of receiving an important message during it, you can assuage some of that fear by communicating up-front that you won’t be consistently available. Planning a vacation, and worried you’ll be tied to your phone the whole time? Let your co-workers know a week or two in advance, and reiterate that you won’t be checking messages while you’re out. Working on a big project and expecting to hear from your team members? Tell them when you’ll be unavailable as early as possible, rather than sweating it out and panicking at every phone vibration while you’re busy. A little upfront communication will go a long way in calming your nerves and reinforcing your work and personal relationships.

4. Remove Temptation

One of the biggest pitfalls of merging work and personal functionalities on a phone is the allure of all the other shiny, fun apps that live there. If you feel that your addiction has shifted from workaholism to constant Facebook-checking, Instagramming, or tweeting, remove the temptation to get distracted. Delete any apps that are time-sucks for you. Similarly, modify the push preferences on your phone settings. Instead of receiving alerts each time a message comes through, choose to be notified once every hour, or only when you open your apps. If you find that you’re spending a lot of time checking “mindless” emails about deals or promotions, modify your inbox so these distractions aren’t so in-your-face.

5. Think About What You’re Missing

If you think your phone addiction isn’t that bad, quantify the amount of time you’re spending staring at your screen versus interacting with the world around you. Think about the things you want to do but “never have time for,” like a new exercise class, a long chat with a faraway friend, or even just people-watching on your commute. This will make it easier to be more resolute when you hit “delete” on the Twitter app.

And while I know how easy it can be to use your phone as a crutch in awkward or boring situations—see if you can break free of that habit, too. Bored on your ride to work? Bring a book or headphones and spend some quality time with the written word or your iTunes library. Uncomfortable sitting alone at a bar or coffee shop while waiting for your tardy friend? Stretch your confidence and soak in the atmosphere.

You don’t need to check your phone all the time; the work emails and personal messages, the Facebook updates and new Instagram photos, will all be there later. It’s okay to set boundaries to keep your life and your work separate and healthy—even if they’re merged together on your phone.