Here’s an email I received recently from a reader:

I would love some help figuring out a tiny habit to help me unplug from my phone. It’s the first thing I reach for in the morning, when I’m stopped at red lights, when I get home from work—my brain has become used to checking my email, text messages, facebook, playing Plants vs. Zombies constantly. It’s hard because I use my phone for so many things throughout the day (except of course as a phone!), so its constant presence makes it hard to forget it’s there at the times that I’m not really using it. Any ideas? — Pamela

Pamela, you’ve got a great goal for the New Year. Two new studies support your sense that you will be happier (and less stressed) if you check your phone less. A study of college students at Kent State University found that people who check their phones frequently tend to experience higher levels of distress during their leisure time (when they intend to relax!).

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, which appears this month. She'll be talking about the book on January 21 at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, CA.
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In another study, Elizabeth Dunn and Kostadin Kushlev regulated how frequently participants checked their email throughout the day. Those limited to checking their email only three times a day (vs. an average of 15 times) were less tense and less stressed overall.

Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work to just will ourselves to stop a compulsive behavior. We check our phones and our email because it provides us with what researchers call “variable-ratio” reinforcement—once in a while we get an email or message that is particularly rewarding, and that once in a while is enough to keep us checking compulsively. (Slot machines also provide variable-ratio rewards.)

Instead of willing ourselves to just check less often, we can configure our devices and work time so that we are tempted less often. The goal is to check your phone just a few times a day—intentionally, not impulsively. Our devices are thus returned to their status as tools we use strategically—not slot machines that randomly demand our energy and attention.

Take action! Here’s a plan to lower your stress and tension.

Install Checky on your mobile devices, and RescueTime on your computer to measure how often you’re actually checking email, social media, etc. (What we measure, we improve.) Give yourself a day to determine how frequently you are checking before attempting to scale back.

Make a strategic decision about when you will check your email and messages. I check my email quickly before work to delete or unsubscribe from junk and respond to anything urgent. I respond to everything else in my work email at 3:00pm and my home email at 7:45pm. I actually block this time out on my calendar as a recurring task, and then move it around as necessary—that way I check strategically, not constantly, and definitely not impulsively. I look at (and maybe post to) social media once in the morning before work, if I have time, and then I close it for the day. I respond to texts and voicemails once mid-morning and once mid-afternoon (between calls and meetings).

Tell your family and colleagues that you are establishing a strategic checking schedule. Worried that people will see you as unresponsive or slacking at work? Leslie Perlow’s research indicates otherwise; in fact, your colleagues will likely notice your increased productivity and see you as more collaborative, efficient, and effective when you reduce constant email monitoring.

Remove distractions. Set your mobile devices to automatically go into sleep mode an hour before you go to bed until your first pre-determined checking time. Consider removing email from your phone, or at least moving it to a back “page” of apps, so that you don’t see it if you are turning off your alarm or using another app.

I think of this as hiding the Halloween candy: If you wanted to eat less candy, you wouldn’t put a bowl of it on your bedside table, bathroom counter, kitchen table, car dashboard, and desk at work, right? So don’t do that with the slot machine that is your smartphone.

While you are on your computer working (or in the car driving), keep your email program closed. Turn all notifications off. Put your phone in sleep mode. This may seem drastic, but trust me: Your life is about to get way better.

Focus on other things. Now, do your most important work, or something that brings you peace or joy. Replace checking your smartphone constantly with something better. I set reminders for two-minute relaxation breaks three times a day, when I take a dozen deep breaths (breathing in for five seconds, and out for five seconds). This triggers my vagus nerve, inducing a feeling of calm and reversing the ill effects of stress.

Savor the benefits of this effort. You will likely start sleeping better. You’ll be more focused, productive, and efficient at work. You’ll have a heck of a lot more time to do the things that really matter in your life, things that bring lasting happiness. But none of those benefits really matter unless you take the time to enjoy them. Studies by Fred Bryant suggest that by consciously and deliberately savoring positive events in our life, we can increase the amount of happiness we derive from them in the short and long run. So enjoy being less stressed and less tense—relish your new life.

Need more structure? This is a pretty hardcore Happiness Tip (usually they are much less dramatic.) If you want more support in making a change like this one, please sign up for my free online class. You’ll get a worksheet and an email everyday for 21 days that will give you more help establishing good habits like this one.

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