When Technology Addiction Takes Over Your Life

Are you a tangled mess of BlackBerrys, emails, PDAs, iPhones, laptops, and cell phones? Here’s how to untangle your life and find healthy balance.

From the WebMD Archives

Jenn Hoffman, Phoenix-based CEO of The J Brand Group, should have been enjoying a relaxing vacation on the Cote d'Azur. Sipping champagne and nibbling on cheese at the posh Louis XV restaurant, she was eagerly awaiting her entree, a poached Breton lobster. But then, poised next to the breadbasket, her BlackBerry Pearl came to life, and so did her technology addiction.

She lunged for it and swiftly pecked out a response to my request for BlackBerry anecdotes: "I'm so addicted to this device that I stopped mid-bite to rush to send this message. My dining partners are staring at me with contempt as I write this."

"My BlackBerry runs my life," Hoffman says. She's got a 24/7 technology habit, even checking messages from the bathroom, a Whistler ski lift, and a pool raft at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont hotel. Her boyfriend calls her laptop, which she brings to bed every night, "the other man."

Hoffman is not alone in dealing with technology overload. Email, PDAs, iPhones, laptops, and cell phones dominate our modern world. Our uber-connected lives have made us virtually available at any time, at any place -- the movies, the golf course, traffic lights, you name it. Here, we look at simple strategies to reduce the electronic overload and regain a healthy balance of life, work, and technology.

(Are you addicted to technology? What electronic toy can you just not live without? Compare with others on WebMD's Health Cafe board.)

The Paradox of Modern Life

We are now more wired than ever. Researchers from the University of Glasgow found that half of the study participants reported checking their email once an hour, while some individuals check up to 30 to 40 times an hour. An AOL study revealed that 59 percent of PDA users check every single time an email arrives and 83 percent check email every day on vacation.

"I live and die in email," says IT manager Christopher Post in Camp Hill, Pa. "I found a PDA to be a double-edged sword. It can certainly allow you to do a lot more in any given day, but there is certainly a cost associated. I tend to lose out on a lot of other experiences, like when I should be paying attention at the dinner table."

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You've got to take back control, says Edward Hallowell, MD, author of CrazyBusy: Overbooked, Overstretched, and About to Snap! "The great thing about modern life is you can do so much," he says, "and the curse of modern life is you can do so much."

It's the new epidemic, Hallowell says. "People joke about being crazy busy. Sometimes they brag about it, like being busy is a status symbol. But they don't realize that it's as harmful for them as obesity or cigarette smoking."

Hopelessly Addicted to Messaging

A self-diagnosed addict, Hoffman estimates that she receives up to 500 emails and texts a day -- and stubbornly responds to every single one, even at 3 a.m.

"It's a compulsion, like an itch you have to scratch," she says. "Like Pavlov's dog, I hear the bell and I run to the BlackBerry salivating. I think I have carpal tunnel or something. I will keep texting until I'm in pain."

There's something very irresistible about an unopened message, Hallowell says. "You do get a dopamine squirt from accessing your messages. The mail used to come once a day," he says. "Now it comes every second."

There's no shut-off switch, says Beth Feldman, a Westchester, N.Y.-based entrepreneur who juggles a BlackBerry, iPhone, and cell phone from 7 a.m. to midnight and works with clients across different time zones. "There used to be boundaries," she says, "but now there are no boundaries."

This free-for-all frenzy has a real impact on relationships and families, knocking our work-life balance off-kilter.

Feldman, who is also the co-author of Peeing in Peace: Tales and Tips for Type A Moms, has caught herself checking messages during her kids' musical performances and Little League games. Her kids will ask her afterward: "Mommy, why were you on your BlackBerry?"

She is desperately trying to curb her habits. "The minute you see that flashing light, you start thinking, 'Do I need to check it?'" she says. "I'm not a brain surgeon. I'm not involved in life and death matters. I realized I have to draw a line. If I'm watching my kids' performance, it's not the end of the world if I don't return an email."

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Why We Need to Rest

These constant interruptions take a toll on our bodies and our mental states.

Feldman suffers from headaches after long days spent staring at the computer screen and putting out fires over her cell phone. "The last thing I want is to put myself at risk for a heart attack," she says. "But if you're not getting away from it enough, it could become dangerous."

Jetsetter Hoffman suffers from insomnia and blames part of it on an obsession with being connected.

"It's like I can't even disconnect to go to sleep," she says.

Multitasking can cause the brain to overheat, like a car engine, says Hallowell. "The brain needs periods to recover, not just sleeping at night," he says, "but during the day, [it needs] periods of rest and recovery. It simply can't run straight out all day long at peak performance."

Type A people, who feel obliged to respond to every email, can work themselves into what Dr. Hallowell dubs the F-State - frantic, frazzled, frenzied. "They get toxic stress and burn up energy rapidly and wastefully," he says. "In that state, they do bad work, lose friends, and lose clients. It's bad for them in every measurable way."

If you don't prioritize, Hallowell says, you'll go in many directions at once and you won't do anything well. "You really need to be very clear about what matters most to you," he says, "It won't happen automatically. If you don't take your time, your time will be taken from you."

He adds: "If you de-stress, if you prioritize, everything gets better -- your physical health, your longevity, your enjoyment of life."

New Solutions for a New Age

Nearly two years ago, Scott Dockter, president and CEO of PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services Inc., decided to take Casual Friday one step further, and created email-free Fridays, where employees are encouraged to talk offline to resolve issues, by picking up the phone or meeting face-to-face.

As a result, he saw an 80 percent email drop-off in the first year and noticed a reduction of unnecessary reports sent and excessive cc'ing.

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The policy changed habits, not just on Fridays. "People started talking to each other," says Dockter, who now leaves his Treo at work at day's end. "[Before] we were robbing each other of our culture."

Hotel manager Rick Ueno went cold turkey from his PDA two years ago. Following his recovery, he started the BlackBerry Check-In Program at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, allowing guests to detox without their gadgets during their stay.

A Canadian government agency has barred employees from using BlackBerries for work overnight, on weekends, and holidays "because they're throwing off staffers' work-life balance."

How to Work Smart

It's very much possible to disconnect, says Tim Ferriss, best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. "The single greatest enemy of creativity is overload," he says. "I believe creativity requires a relaxed acuity, which is rendered impossible by checking email every half hour."

  • Experiment with short periods of inaccessibility. Your life won't implode, Ferriss says. "As with any addiction, there is a period of withdrawal and anxiety."
  • Leave your cell phone and PDA at home one day a week. Saturday is a good day to cut off email and cell phone usage. "For most people, it will feel like a two-week vacation," Ferriss says. "The psychological recovery it offers is pretty unbelievable."
  • Set a "not-to-do list." Don't check email before 10 a.m. to avoid immediate reactive mode, Ferriss suggests. Set intervals to check email, for example, at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. Use an auto-responder to explain that you can be reached any time on your cell phone.
  • Eliminate rather than streamline whenever possible. Lose the RSS feeder, Ferriss says. "If you have an addictive impulse with tools, lose the tool," he says.
  • Hire a virtual assistant. "A big part of priority management is teaching others tasks," he says. "A big part is getting over yourself. You don't have a superhuman email checking ability."
  • Buddy up. Don't go it alone on the road to recovery, Hallowell says, because you're likely to revert to your old habits. Ask a colleague, administrative assistant, or spouse to help you enforce the new rules.
  • Learn moderation. "I'm not anti-technology," Hallowell says. "Some is good for you, but too much is really, really bad."
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 06, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Jenn Hoffman, CEO, The J Brand Group, Phoenix.

News release, University of Glasgow, Aug. 13, 2007.

News release, AOL and Opinion Research Corporation, July 25, 2007

Christopher Post, IT manager, Camp Hill, Pa.

Edward Hallowell, MD, author, CrazyBusy: Overbooked, Overstretched, and About to Snap!

Beth Feldman, Westchester, N.Y., author, Peeing in Peace: Tales and Tips for Type A Moms.

Scott Dockter, president and CEO, PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services Inc.

News release, Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, Feb. 8, 2008.

Ottawa Citizen, "BlackBerry Blackout," Jan. 31, 2008.

Tim Ferriss, author, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.

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