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The importance of being unplugged.

Ding.

It’s that iPhone alert. The one that signals an incoming text message. I gulp down the last bite of my dinner and walk over to the counter to check the earth-shattering news that awaits. You see, I’m compelled to check the message prior to that second ding. You know, the one that signals the second notification of this earth-shattering message.

I pick up my phone.

There it is. The message I couldn’t even finish chewing my last bite for.

“Np.”

It’s a reply to a previous message. What a letdown.

What is it that has driven me to act like Pavlov’s dog? This isn’t the only time it’s happened today. And it’s not just me. It’s a pandemic of epic Pavlovian proportions. High-level business executives taking a quick glance down at an incoming message during a meeting. 

A familiar glow rising up from two rows in front of you at the movie theatre.

The car next to me, looking down at their “cup holder.”

For the same reason that Pavlov’s dog was driven to the bell, we’re driven to respond to the ding. That reason is dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical your body releases each time you get an incoming message or notification. It’s also the same chemical you get from delicious food or really good sex. It gives you kind of a mini high. And turns out, that mini high is extremely addictive.

In my office, in addition to my text messages, we use a messaging system called Slack which gives instant communication to anyone on my channel. And then there’s email, a constant stream of communication coming in that I need to check and reply to. Not to mention the messages and incoming tasks from our project management system.

The pressure to be responsive, to instantly check messages and reply so you can get another one, is intense. And that pressure doesn’t stop at the end of the workday. It’s constant. 

Every social media app is vying for your attention. That means that companies like Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat are doing everything they can to keep your dopamine levels high so you stay on their apps longer and check them more frequently, all for the sake of advertising dollars.

As happy as that incoming notification makes you feel, it has some rather nasty side effects. The constant barrage of instant information reduces your decision making and productivity skills, so much so, that every time you check a message it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back to a task. Imagine how much that impairs your ability to work, study, or to absorb information.

Now not only are you frantic to get your next fix of dopamine, but you can’t do as much work because of your lack of focus. If that wasn’t bad enough, all this interruption is stressing you out.

Okay, okay. So you are stressed out, unfocused, dopamine addicted, click-bait. So what?

Okay, okay. So you are stressed out, unfocused, dopamine addicted, click-bait. So what?

That’s not all. Studies show that using notification alert apps like social media are also leaving you with depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. Social media is linked to negative feelings of social comparison and fear of missing out. Shocker.

Plus, most people now sleep with their phone near their bed. Cell phones have been linked to disruption in sleep patterns, and there has also been some evidence that it may also increase your risk of cancer. Our little devices just keep getting better. 

So let me rephrase that. You are stressed out, unfocused, dopamine addicted, click-bait who is depressed, lonely, socially unworthy, sleep deprived with a potential higher risk of cancer.

There is one thing, and one thing only you can do. 

Unplug.

Some would argue that just turning off notifications altogether will solve all your problems. However, this has been shown to not be the case.

In one study, 30 employees were asked to turn off all notifications for 24 hours. The results found that there was higher productivity, however, stress and worry occurred because they felt they were missing information about important things, which caused them to pick up and check their phone even more often.

Okay. Scratch that one. 

But there are tactics you can use that won’t cause more stress. Sure, your phone might be invaluable for staying informed, but something as simple as refusing to constantly check notifications can improve your productivity by five times.

Schedule windows of deep work for 2-3 hours, and then set windows of time to check and reply to all messages.

Set boundaries in your personal life where phones just aren’t allowed. Dinners, visiting with friends, taking a vacation, reading a book, or after 9pm. Making yourself present in these types of quality situations actually increases your happiness levels. Socializing face-to-face, for example, is proven to make you feel more connected than texting with someone (I mean, duh).

Another strategy for unplugging is to simply turn off your volume and placing your phone somewhere you can’t see it. 

A method that I feel is easier to manage is called the Pomodoro Technique. This simple time management approach breaks down work into 25 minute increments. These small blocks of time are intense periods where you commit to working on a particular task without interruptions, followed by a break of 3-5 minutes which you can use to check messages.

Regardless of which approach you take, study after study has proven that taking the time to unplug and walk away from the constant interruptions, even if it’s only in small windows, is extremely beneficial to your health, productivity and even your sanity. 

It can also improve your relationships. Acknowledging your phone over a friend or partner is an extremely powerful statement. It says that whoever is on the other end of the ding is much more important than the person currently in the room. Studies have shown that if one partner is repeatedly distracted by his or her phone, chances are the other partner begins to feel less and less satisfied with the relationship.

All these studies are making me wish for a WiFi free desert island. 

The importance of being unplugged is undeniable and can contribute to a more well-balanced personal and professional life. Being more mindful of your distractions is the first step in taking back control of who and what you allow to control your time.

As for me, I’ll fully admit I’m a work in progress. I struggle with keeping a balance between friend time, family time, personal time, work time and that damn ding. What keeps my eye on the ball (so to speak) is the sense of satisfaction I get, knowing I have attempted to conquer my inner Pavlovian dog.