Christine Carter explains how to get out of your inbox and feel more relaxed and productive.

I have been without my smartphone, unintentionally, for about 40 hours now. (I had a little mishap with an open water bottle and my phone in the same purse, and I’m not-so-patiently awaiting my new phone’s arrival.) I’m finding the experience of being totally unconnected disorienting. It feels like part of my brain has been dismantled—and I don’t even use my phone for email.

I do use my phone as a camera, a navigation tool, and a phone. I went to a concert last night and didn’t document it in any way. I had to look at a map and memorize it before getting in the car. And I had to borrow a landline at the Verizon store to call my daughter, whose number, it turns out, I didn’t know. Weird.

All this is hilarious, given that as a coach, I specialize in helping executives unplug from work while they are at home. I can’t even imagine how many of them would survive in the state of disconnection I’ve been experiencing.

Many of my clients spend most of their waking existence monitoring their email and social media feeds. They begin the day by turning off the alarm on their phone . . . and then they check their messages. Before they are out of bed. And in the bathroom. And at breakfast. Once at work, the emailing continues—before, during, and after meetings. Lunch? They “catch up” on email. The checking continues long into the evening, well after they’ve left the office.

Does this sound familiar? If so, here are five steps that will help you check less, but work—and play—more.

Step 1: Decide what to do instead of checking constantly. If you are going to spend less time monitoring your email (and social media feeds, and anything else that is constantly nagging you for attention), what would be more productive or joyful for you? My clients often want to spend more time doing focused, intelligent, creative work during the day, and more time relaxing, exercising, and hanging out with their families before and after work. Actually block off time on your calendar for stuff like “Read with hubby” or “Do focused writing/thinking.”

Step 2: Schedule two or three specific times to check your email and messages during the day. I check my email first thing in the morning, and in the late afternoon. Here is the key: Block off enough time to get all the way to the bottom of your inbox in one way or another. If a particular email is going to take more than 5 minutes to read and respond to, I put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to my task list. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily.

Step 3: Turn off all your alerts. Unless you are actively checking your email and messages, you don’t need to know what communication is coming in because you’ll be devoting your full attention to something else. So turn off all notifications on your desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Vibrate counts; turn it off. Now do this for your text messages and all of your social media feeds. Breathe.

(Note: Even if, through the strength of your ironclad will, you are able to resist reading a message that comes in, if you see or hear or feel a message notification, your brain has still been interrupted by that alert. Even a millisecond attention hijack like this will make you less focused, less able to resist other temptations, and more irritable.)

Step 4: Hide the bowl of candy. If you were trying to eat less candy, would you carry a bowl of it around with you? Would you put it on your nightstand and reach into it first thing in the morning? And then carry it with you to the bathroom? And then set it next to you while you try to eat a healthy breakfast? And then put it on your dashboard? I didn’t think so.

So keep that smartphone tucked away until you actually need it. (Maybe make sure your water bottle isn’t leaking before you keep it stashed in your bag, though.) Think of it as a tool, like a hammer, that you don’t need to pull out until one of your strategically designated times. Make adjustments: Dig up your old-fashioned alarm clock, update your car’s navigation system, and put that digital camera back in your bag for the times when getting a call or text will tempt you.

Step 5: Notice what happens. Notice the difficult bits with curiosity (and maybe humor). How do you feel as you detox from constant checking? How are people reacting now that you don’t respond to everything instantly? Notice also the moments of ease and focus. Your tension levels will likely drop, and you’ll probably be less stressed. How does this feel in your body? Really see the people around you, now that you are looking up from your phone. Smile.

 

This story originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. For more, visit Greater Good online.