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12 Steps to Recovery for Instant Communication Junkies

Reducing tech-based stress in our tech-filled lives.

In my last post, Connection Overload!, I discussed the passionate connection we've developed with being connected. For many, it's become like an addiction, interfering in productivity, performance, and relationships, and raising stress levels.

The good news is that, like any other bad habit, you have the power to take control of your gadgets and make them work for you instead of the other way around. So if you, like so many others, have become an instant communication junkie and are looking for a little relief from the madness, here are your 12 steps to recovery. (Oh, and due to the nature of the beast, I've taken the liberty of defining a few keys words.)

1) Admit that you've become way too dependent on being constantly connected. (Cliché, yes. But the first step to recovering from anything is acknowledging there's a problem.)

2) Recognize that you have the power to change and make a commitment to turn your overconnected life around.

3) Make a list of all the ways you're connected. Don't just include the gadgets that connect you, but also all the ways that you connect on your gadgets. So, for example, don't just write down your computer; also include Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn (or whatever you use). Same with your cell phone--list your phone AND text messaging AND voice messages AND apps (or whatever other bells and whistles you use).

4) Using this list, highlight the ones that you must keep (must is defined as you need them to do your job or take care of your responsibilities). If you did your homework from my last post, you should have already made this list, but go back over your list and make sure it contains only the sources you absolutely need to get your work and responsibilities handled. No cheating!

5) Scratch off (I know this one hurts) the gadgets/website/apps that you can live without or don't get that much out of and let them go (i.e., sell or get rid of the gadget, remove from your bookmarks or favorites, delete from your computer, remove yourself from unimportant or unnecessary listservs). For some of you hard core addicts, a period of mourning may be appropriate here.

6) Pare down your contacts by disconnecting from people you don't know or don't know very well. I mean, come on ... does anyone really need to follow 10,000 tweeters? And with all the unnecessary connections most people have these days, I doubt they'll even notice.

7) Keep a log of how much time you spend on the gadgets/websites/apps that are not highlighted and not scratched off your list. Once you have a good baseline assessment of how much time you spend on these don't-really-need-but-really-really-like gadgets/websites/apps, give yourself a reasonable time limit for using them. (Reasonable does not mean a minute less than your log shows. Reasonable means cutting back from, for example, an average of two or three hours a day to an hour or even a half-hour a day.)

8) For the highlighted, must-have items, if possible, turn off all the dings, dongs, beeps, and bells that emanate from them. (If possible means if responding to email, texts, cell phone calls, and/or instant messages is not a part of your job description. It doesn't mean if turning your alerts off makes you feel uncomfortable or anxious. In fact, if you're an instant communication addict, turning off the alerts will definitely make you uncomfortable and anxious. Just think of it as a necessary part of the recovery process.)

9) If you can't turn off alerts because they're a part of your job, speak to your boss (or have a heart-to-heart with yourself if you're the boss) about his/her/your expectations of how quickly you're expected to respond to alerts. If it's acceptable to respond within, let's say, an hour's time, set a schedule in which you check your messages every hour, handle what is critical to handle as quickly as possible, then return to whatever you were working on. If there are no expectations, set aside a specific amount of time each day to respond to emails (or times each day if you get a lot of emails). During that time, clean out your in-box as much as possible by a) immediately deleting SPAM, b) saving or deleting messages that don't require a response, c) not being shy about forwarding messages that are more appropriate for someone else to handle, and d) responding to messages that require your response. The ultimate goal (and challenge) is to have an empty in-box at the end of your allotted email time.1

10) Plan your time online. Before you go online, make a list of what you need to accomplish, do those things, and then log off. Don't surf or get drawn to other sites. (It's a lot like going to the grocery store. If you don't make a list before you go, you're more likely to wander around and pick up things you don't really need.)

11) Instant messaging is often used when a response is needed immediately, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes, it's the addict on the other end who just needs a fix of instant communication. If this is the case and you're in the middle of something, quickly inform your fellow addict that you're in recovery (e.g., you're working) and can't respond, then turn your IM status to "invisible" (which you should've done before you started your project anyway!). Keep your status on invisible until you're finished the task.

12) If possible (see #8 for definition), leave a message on your cell phone telling callers that you only respond to messages between the hours of [fill in the blank]. Then, listen to yourself and return messages only during that specified period of time. This removes any expectation on the part of the caller that you will respond to them immediately or even quickly, and it gives you better control of your schedule. The truth is that when someone calls you, it's usually because that the best time for them to talk. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the best time for you to talk. And who knows? Maybe the person will get tired of playing phone tag and stop calling all together.

So there you go! The keys to instant communication recovery kingdom! And although it's probably going to take some time to untrain yourself from responding to all those cool gadgets you've brought into your life, in the end, it'll be worth it. Not only should it reduce some unnecessary stress in your life, it should also free up a little (maybe even a lot) of your time. Do me a favor though. Try not to fill all of it up with work!2

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved


1Farhad Manjoo, "An Empty In-Box, or with Just A Few Email Message?" Read On," New York Times, March 9, 2009.

2 Some of the suggestions contained in this post were taken from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

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