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Constantly Checking Email is Wrecking Your Health. Here’s What to do About it.

Sleep better, feel calmer, do better work, and have a more fulfilling sex life - just by taking breaks from your inbox.

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@meghanschiereck
Photo by @meghanschiereck

Where is your phone right now?

Chances are it’s within three feet of you, if not on your body. You might even be holding it to read this article.

As a nation we have normalized and accepted technological co-dependency. It’s hard to notice because it’s so endemic, but the next time you’re stuck at a traffic light, pay attention to how quickly your body – almost without your mind even realizing it – reaches for your phone. To glance at the screen. To see if anybody’s contacted you. To read an e-mail. To… wait, why did I actually just pick up my phone? I don’t know. To feel like I was getting something done. Because I was nervous. Because I don’t know what to do during quiet moments.

Have you ever checked e-mail while waiting at a traffic light? Yeah. Me too.

It’s status quo, and it’s very likely trashing not only your health but also your productivity.


Here are 9 ways that your smartphone is ruling your life, in a bad way:

Eye Problems

We spend so much time looking at our phones and computer screens that we’ve made ourselves nearsighted. More and more children (and adults) in my family practice are failing their long-distance vision screens and getting referred to optometrists for glasses. Studies have shown that smartphone exposure has negative effects on our ocular health – especially in adolescence. The time we spend starting at something 6 inches away from our noses is hurting our vision.

Body Pain

Next time you’re out in public, look around and surely you’ll see people looking at their phones. What’s their posture like? Chances are their heads are sticking forward and their faces looking down. (Why is it we bring our faces to the phones, instead of the other way around?) When we look down at our phones, our shoulders likewise roll forward.

Over time these poor body mechanics cause a condition called upper crossed syndrome, in which the muscles in the front of the neck and anterior shoulders become short and tight (“hypertonic,” in medical speak), and the muscles in the back of the neck and upper back become long, lax, and loosey goosey (not medical speak).

Compulsive phone use not only contributes to poor posture, but also leads to chronic neck, back, and shoulder pain for many, which in turn can cause secondary headaches, migraines, and jaw problems.

Also, it seems unfathomable, but tendonitis in the thumbs is a thing now among adolescents, thanks to texting.

Anxiety

Many people check e-mail first thing in the morning, even from bed. But what projects are you really ready to tackle at 7am when your teeth are still fuzzy?

When you read an e-mail in bed that requires a response or other action on your part, you think about it on the toilet. You start trouble-shooting in the shower. You skip breakfast because you’re worried (or excited) and eager to take action. You’re essentially anxious until you can reply.

Why not just check your e-mail when you’re in a place where you’re actually ready to fix problems and write responses? If you can’t tend to something until 9am, why clutter your brain and nervous system with it at 7?

Checking e-mail and looking at social media before bed can likewise heighten anxiety. If you read some bad news at 11pm you likely won’t get very good quality sleep. You may spend all night ruminating, or having poor quality sleep filled with bothersome dreams.

We actually reinforce our anxiety by checking e-mail when we could be looking at the clouds or feeling our feelings.

If your baseline is “busy,” as it is for most people in the developed world, anxiety can wash over you during dull or quiet moments, presenting as the nagging feeling that you’re supposed to be doing something. Pulling out a phone or logging into e-mail on a computer helps us feel like we’re being productive – even when we aren’t – and can numb anxious feelings. But we actually reinforce our anxiety by checking e-mail when we could be looking at the clouds, making contact with another human being, or simply taking five deep breaths and learning how to be present with our sensations.

Terrible Sleep

The blue light from smart phones, computers, tablets, TVs, and even Kindle and Nook readers affects the pineal gland of the brain, making your body think it’s daytime. That’s why it’s so easy to lie in bed looking at your smart phone, thinking “I’m so tired, I’ll just check my Facebook real quick and konk out in five minutes,” but then realize it’s been an hour.

The light from these screens stops the brain’s production of the hormone melatonin, a powerful antioxidant that not only affects sleep quality, but also helps your body in a number of other crucial ways. There’s no shortage of studies showing that people who work the night shift have lower levels of melatonin, and therefore higher rates of cancer, depression, obesity, chronic body pain, inflammation and even death by suicide. The same may very well be said of those of us who bring our phones into bed and stay up until 2am spying on the people with whom we went to high school.

Low melatonin levels can also make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Even if you do doze off just fine after looking at your phone, the science is very clear: your sleep will not be as restorative, and you’ll be hitting snooze repeatedly in the morning and feeling groggier than if you’d just read an old-fashioned book before bed.

Do not keep phones, tablets, TVs, or computers in the bedroom.

That’s why I tell my patients not keep any phones, tablets, TVs, or computers in the bedroom, and recommend that teenagers turn their phones over to their parents for charging and safekeeping at 9pm. And if you’re using your phone as an alarm, don’t worry: they still make good old fashioned clocks with a variety of alarm features.

Less Sex

It’s pretty hard to compete for somebody’s attention when they’re looking at a glowing screen.

Besides, giving one-word replies or grunting in response to your partner’s attempts at conversation while you stare at your phone and not your sweetie likely won’t win you any points. Libido, especially for men, is largely visual. So fellas, you might be missing a lovely view and some tempting nonverbal cues when your attention is turned to your idiot box.

Checking your e-mail and getting stressed out at 11pm is likely going to make it that much harder for your partner to create intimacy with you. So much of human attraction and sensuality comes from contact – and contact is simply severed the minute you or your mate picks up a phone, tablet, or laptop.

ADD, Dissatisfaction, & Boredom

We all know that occasional nothin’ doin’ and a little bit of boredom is good for both our physical and psychological health.

Yet our hyper-vigilance in staying abreast of e-mails has us looking at our phones when we’re on the toilet, stalled at a traffic light, in the middle of a meal with friends, or even while we’re driving.

If you can’t wait in a grocery line without pulling out your phone, you’re not alone. But try and fight that urge. Look around. People watch. Think about something. Try to not be entertained or busy for five minutes. It’s hard, right? So hard. That’s how you know our phones have zapped our attention spans. 5 years ago, it wasn’t hard. It was just life.

Our phones have zapped our attention spans.

In my own practice, the pattern has been very, very clear: the kids that come into my office with iPads, or who play with mom’s smart phone during the visit have shorter attention spans and are more likely to have behavioral problems.

If a child says they’re bored, that’s a great opportunity to push them to engage their creativity. As the authors of Simplicity Parenting suggest, when a child says they’re bored, you can simply respond with, “Something to do is just around the corner.”

When that fails, you can give a child (or yourself!) a task to do, like folding the laundry, sweeping out the garage, or emptying the dishwasher. (This teaches everyone pretty quickly to get creative so they don’t get bored!)

I also had one little girl in my practice who brought her “iPad” to the appointment, which was really just an Etch-a-Sketch. The child seemed pretty thrilled with it, actually.

If you always need to be “doing something” even when winding down or relaxing, then picking up an adult coloring book or taking up knitting can be great ways to busy your hands while calming your mind.

I personally take 24 hours each week as a “digital detox” – a full day without phone, tablet, TV, or computer. In those 24 hours my home just somehow becomes tidy, and I channel my energy into products that have a visible, tangible outcome, which helps me feel proud and accomplished by the end of the day. Digital detox day also gives me time to curl up with a good book, go for a hike, or hand-write a letter to a friend. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that my mood is calm and happy.

Poor Productivity

People often feel busy and productive while they’re at their computers, only to realize later in the day they actually got nothing done. Although you’re certainly busy when you’re tending to e-mails, those e-mail replies often don’t do anything to help you check any tasks off of your to-do list. Keeping busy isn’t the same as being productive.

Keeping busy isn’t the same as being productive.

No matter how important they may be, e-mails are almost always an interruption to whatever else you were doing, pulling your attention elsewhere. A psychological “switching of gears” needs to happen when you pull your attention away from whatever you were working on to investigate the “ding” of your phone signaling a new e-mail. It can require up to 45 minutes to resume a major task after it’s been interrupted. It has been estimated that 28% of every 9-to-5 workday is consumed by such interruptions.

Checking e-mail “real quick” is not real quick at all; it’s a huge time suck for most people, especially when we consider the extra time required to “switch gears” before and after reading even a short e-mail.

That’s why I have turned off the e-mail “notifications” feature on my phone and computer. That means nothing “dings” or vibrates, allowing me to focus on the priorities on my to-do list.

Business consultants and productivity experts strongly recommend that individuals – even CEOs – check e-mail no more than twice daily. I suggest 12pm and 4pm, but see what makes the most sense for you.

Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) suggests scheduling the most important task of the day in the morning and not checking e-mail until after you’ve completed that task. That way you stay focused on doing good quality work with minimal distractions, when your brain is its freshest.

If you’re concerned that checking e-mail “only” twice a day may get you into trouble with colleagues and supervisors, consider using an auto-responder. A sample message could look like this:
“Thank you for your message. Please note that I check messages twice daily, at around 12pm and 4pm. If you require my urgent attention and truly cannot wait until then, please call me at __.”

You’re Throwing Away Money

The productivity and restfulness jeopardized by hyper-vigilance in checking and responding to e-mails is very likely causing you to lose money.

Check out the book The 4-Hour Workweek for Tim Ferriss’ break-down of how much money per week you could be saving if you limited time on e-mail. It’s wild.

Also, you’re paying how much for that data plan!?

You Also Kinda Look Like a Jerk


(I’m telling you this as a friend…)

I recently went out to breakfast and was seated near a table of 6 teenage girls. The whole meal – I mean, the whole meal – they all had out their smart phones and were showing each other pictures as they gossiped. After the plates were cleared, however, they collectively grew silent, each girl staring down at her respective screen. One girl didn’t have a phone, and just looked nervously around the room. It was bizarre.

Dumbstruck, I turned to the friend with whom I was having breakfast, and realized she was also staring at her phone. I pointed out to her what was happening at the table next to us, and she said, “Huh. Yeah. Wow. So sad,” without even looking up.

Everybody nowadays talks like they’re stoned because they’re looking at their phones.

I recently met somebody who spent 5 years in prison and told me, “So much has changed in the time I’ve been away. Everybody nowadays talks like they’re stoned because they’re looking at their phones while they’re talking to you. I mean, how do you even have a conversation anymore?”

Break the E-mail Habit

Habits take a minimum of 21 days to break, so don’t be discouraged if going on an e-mail “diet” feels odd at first or if you feel anxious for a few days. Stay present, breathe, and remind yourself that you’re going through e-mail withdrawal. (If the anxiety persists past one week, then it may be time to find a practitioner to help you treat the anxiety, so you can stop numbing it with electronics.)

Cultural norms become normal because large groups of people follow them and uphold them. But it’s clearly time we change the course of this ship, as we’ve developed psychological compulsions around e-mail, social media, and all things glowing screen. These dependencies are deeply affecting our health, happiness, and well being.

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