July 18, 2012
Reaching for that phone at 3 a.m.? There's help for you
We often think of habits as good things, signposts or guidelines in our lives that, if developed and groomed over time, can help keep us on track, doing the things we need to do.
Sometimes, of course, habits are bad and they hurt us, maybe without us even realizing it. In the book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business," New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg deconstructs the science behind our habits and illustrates how brains can be retrained to form new habits that lead to desired results, like weight loss and increased productivity. Duhigg's research shows that if people recognize and then analyze the urges that drive our habits, we can then reroute our urges into more productive neurological patterns.
The worst, most entrenched habits can become like tics, things we do so much that we have come to rely on the action whether we need it or not -- things like checking our email, social media networks and phones constantly. Many of us have become so used to checking our phones and email that we feel wrong, even empty or lazy, if we don't. So we do it, making ourselves available to work and friends essentially 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thereby reinforcing the expectation that we are available 24 hours a day.
It's a vicious circle. I am guilty of it. My phone is the last thing I check before turning out the light at night, and if I am going to be totally honest I have to admit that there have been times when I wake up during the night to get a drink or use the bathroom and the thought has occurred to me that I could just check the phone real quick and see if anything important (or not important) has come in.
I haven't done it (check the phone in the night), but the fact is that I do, like so many people, feel tethered to my email. The urge to "check in" is almost always there, and I believe it interferes with my personal time and increases anxiety. Some experts even believe our electronic-device tic inflates our sense of self-importance.
An article in The New York Times last week raised the question: is there "something we can do unilaterally as individuals or do we need some sort of corporate shift that acknowledges and addresses the burnout of always being on call?"
Leslie A. Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of "Sleeping With Your Smartphone," conducted a survey of 1,600 managers and professionals and found that only 2 percent turned off their devices, even while on vacation, according to the story.
But when Perlow did an experiment with a six-person consulting team where each person on the team received a night off where they would be unreachable electronically, she found that "team members felt empowered and expressed increased satisfaction with work and their work-life balance. They started scrutinizing operations, like whether their travel schedules might be shifted to make their lives more relaxed and productive," according to the Times story.
Apparently, a few companies are starting to address the problem, stopping email servers during certain hours.
Experts say the key to breaking the tic and reshaping your personal habits around electronic communication is to identify personal boundaries or limits; recognize if those make you nervous, worried or uncomfortable (and asking why -- could you be avoiding doing or dealing with something else when you are obsessively checking your phone or Facebook?); acknowledge that making a change is difficult; and then moving forward with instituting rules (like phone blackout times) that will help you change your habit.
Do you have personal rules or limits around electronic communication? How does it affect your personal and work life? I would love to hear from readers on this as I try to analyze my own habits (and keep my hand away from the night table at 3 a.m.).
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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