Among the first things displaced by our addictions and obsessions is emotional honesty. All addictions help us defer the emotional moment, whatever its flavor and whenever it arrives. For instance, I have long deployed e-mail at work as a foil to defer my own irrational fears of failure and abandonment. Rather than sit down to the work I know needs doing, I'll check my e-mail first every time I sit down to make sure that the world is still spinning. (It always is.) But the act of checking my e-mail always consumes the better part of five minutes, usually just to wade through the junk. Multiply that five minutes by the 10 or 20 times a day that I check my e-mail, and it all adds up to some serious time. Of course that time represents only the minimum daily adult requirement, the time I commit only if I find nothing in my e-mail inbox that elicits an actual response, a determination typically based on how contentious, defiant, or lonely I feel at the moment.
Before I know it, my fear of failure has evolved into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing with my e-mail has displaced at least some of the time required to do the work. Not only have I heightened my fear of failure and abandonment (the eventual result when I get fired for not doing the work), but I also feel lousy because I didn't get the work done on time, or didn't complete it to my own satisfaction. This is a typical addictive cycle: Our fears drive us to act out, acting out helps us self-medicate and set our fears aside for the moment, then afterwards we feel guilty because we acted out instead of doing what had to be done. In the end, acting out only reinforces our fears and feeds our addictions.
In mapping my own behavior, I noted that I had a tendency to check my e-mail whenever I sat down in front of my computer, regardless of the time of day, or the number of times I sat down. In mapping the corresponding emotions, I found myself already growing anxious the very moment I stepped away from the computer. The anxiety would only abate the moment I sat down and checked my e-mail. So I have taken to checking my e-mail only at pre-determined times of the day, and I have limited the number of times that I check my e-mail to four each day, sometimes less but never more. No more ad hoc e-mail for me.
The idea, of course, was not to eliminate e-mail from my life, but to eliminate the compulsive behavior associated with it, and thereby reclaim the time displaced by the selfsame compulsive behavior. That said, I did encounter some significant emotional and physical turbulence the moment I started taking my own medicine. At first my anxiety away from the computer -- my anxiety between e-mail fixes -- gave way to a palpable anger. Upon my return to the computer, the anger would dissolve into a kind of existential emptiness; I would just sit down and stare at the screen. After a few moments of intolerable silence, I would feel suddenly lost and rudderless, and could feel the panic rising in my chest once again. Eventually, I would either succumb to my e-mail beast or stand up and walk away, utterly frustrated. Neither behavior got me where I wanted to go, and I re-discovered the difference between abstinence and sobriety: abstinence speaks exclusively to the absence of a certain behavior, while sobriety speaks to the presence of something more - a quality of intent.
I re-discovered that the act of avoiding one behavior requires a corresponding intent to engage in another. In other words, it wasn't enough to be mindful of what I didn't want to do; I also needed to replace the old behavior with something else.
Accordingly, now I don't sit down in front of my computer unless and until I have a clear intent to do something other than check my e-mail. This intent manifests itself in greater productivity both at and away from the computer. I no longer wonder or worry about who has or hasn't sent me an e-mail. I think less about failure because I have more time to apply to my success.
Recovering addicts often apply a generic acronym to their day-to-day experience: HALT - Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and/or Tired. These four conditions -- experienced singly or in concert -- act as triggers for our acting out behaviors. Nowadays, whenever I feel hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired, I find a way -- either by phone or in person -- to reach out and make contact with someone I trust. E-mail just isn't good enough anymore.
Many thanks, as always, and best to you and yours...
Please note: The Einstein's Corner discussion group at http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/einsteinscorner/ is dedicated to exploring the adverse effects of our addictions to technology and media on the quality of our lives, both at work and at home. Please feel free to drop by and join the discussion.