This week our MBA mindfulness exercise was to monitor our emotional reaction to email arriving in our inbox. The idea was to classify each arrival into three categories: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and to identify the body’s sensations at the precise moment the email is received.
This was always going to be hard job for me. As a ‘digital native’, I am a slave to email and other forms of messaging. I am served a constant stream of notifications from my various devices – my laptop computer, my smartphone and my smartwatch. I have notifications turned ‘on’ in pretty much every online tool that I use – Gmail, Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook. So I suspect that my bodily sensations are compromised by this ‘always on’ state of being.
Yes, I know that this is not a good way to work. I’ve done numerous ‘personal efficiency programs’ and read stacks of literature that says it’s bad to be this way. The experts say that ‘you should allocate specific times during the day to check email’; ‘you should check your email no more than twice a day’; ‘checking email compromises your focus and train of thought, resulting in a lack of productivity’; ‘you should turn off your devices outside of normal working hours’; etc.
Yep, I agree with all that. I’ve tried to change my routine, but I soon lapse back into the old ways.
So, what physical sensations do I get when an email arrives? The initial ‘ping’ or vibration of the alert triggers a sense of anticipation, of expectation, a ‘rush’ and a overwhelming desire to reach for the device or to raise the smartwatch to the eye-line. It’s almost an involuntary action, regardless of the context or situation that I find myself in. I admit that there’s nothing ruder than to pull out your phone or check your watch when you’re in one-to-one conversation with another person, but I have been known to do this.
This compulsive need for an information ‘hit’ is often compared with drug addiction. The chemical Dopamine is to blame – it’s a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter in our brain that motivates you to seek pleasure-giving rewards like food, sex, and in some cases, drugs. When you are anticipatingsomething new, dopamine levels rise, motivating you further.
After the dopamine ‘rise’ of the notification, I generally feel compelled to get more information. The visible snapshot of information that is available via the smartwatch screen triggers the next bodily sensation. The screen shows the originator of the message and this small element of information triggers a variety of bodily sensations, despite the fact that the full context of the message is not yet known.
If it’s my wife, there’s a sense of urgency and heightened awareness, because – unlike me – she is not inclined to message or email on a whim. There’s an immediate internal discomfort that needs to be rectified by reading the full message. The fact that it’s my wife – my life partner – messaging me should elicit a pleasant sensation, but the physical response is often an unpleasant one. Is something wrong? Are the kids OK?
If the message relates to my sideline business Boomerang Books I get a similar sensation, particularly if it relates to an outage of our web server, which means that we can’t take online orders. This causes me a great deal of anxiety, annoyance and distraction, much to my wife’s chagrin if it occurs during family times. Messages like this demand an action on my part to rectify the fault, and this gives me a feeling of being tethered inextricably to the business, without the prospect of achieving any degree of unconditional freedom. This is not an uncommon feeling among modern white collar workers who are, for all intents and purposes, available 24/7 to their bosses and customers.
Given the volume of email that I receive, and perhaps the non-urgent nature of much of it, the vast majority of messages trigger a neutral response. Many of these messages could probably be discarded altogether by unsubscribing to mailing lists or filtering non-critical messages directly to the archive.
A small proportion of my email results in a pleasant bodily reaction – typically emails from friends – which result in a warm inner glow in anticipation of reading the contents. Clearly, I need to manufacture a way to receive more of these emails, and less of those that create anxiety!
Another source of discomfort for me is my compulsion to operate a ‘zero inbox’. I’m not happy unless my inbox contains only a handful of ‘read’ emails and is visible on a single desktop screen. It always makes me uncomfortable when I encounter people who operate an inbox containing hundreds, or even thousands, of ‘unread’ emails, without any archive or folder structure. How can these people work effectively? How do they not miss things? I do recognise, however, that my email management philosophy, whilst generally effective, has the potential to command my focus unnecessarily, when it could be directed elsewhere.
So on the back of the MBA exercise, I’m going to try a few things:
- I’m going to turn off alerts on my smartwatch
- I’m going to actively unsubscribe to or filter out non-important emails over the next two weeks
- For those emails that are left over, I’m going to try to apply a neutral acceptance of each email I receive, rather than getting agitated or preoccupied with its contents, regardless of whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant