You're not crazy: Your various inboxes really are stressing you out. Science has shown that checking email elevates your heart rate and your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Taking just a five-day break from email, studies also show, can reduce anxiety and improve productivity.
Imagine what taking a whole year away from the swirl of constant online communication would do for you.
Only you don't have to imagine. One intrepid professional (with a very understanding wife) has already done this experiment for you. When blogger David Roberts noticed his always-on digital lifestyle had his mind wound up to an unsustainable level, he decided to take a drastic measure--quitting all forms of work-related online communication for a full 12 months.
The results of this radical experiment are now in--Roberts has written about his experience in a long, thought-provoking piece for Outside magazine. It's well worth a read in full, but to pique your curiosity, here are a few of the takeaways from the in-depth article:
1. We're rats with pellets.
Humans like to think of themselves as highly evolved, uniquely self-aware creatures, but when it comes to our relationships with our screens, Roberts discovered, we resemble nothing so much as rats in cages with craftily designed food dispensers.
Science shows that to make a total addict out of a rat, you need only follow a simple procedure--give it pleasurable snack pellets at random times and in random quantities. The uncertainty will keep your rat coming back obsessively to see when it's going to hit the tasty pellet jackpot. Social media and email work much the same way, with the reward being social validation, and most of us are as helpless to resist this attraction as those completely addicted laboratory rats are to resisting those rodent snacks.
"Variable intermittent reinforcement explains why slot machines are so enthralling, why video games contain hidden caches of coins or weapons, and why we're all helpless before our e-mail accounts," Roberts explains, adding that "the kinds of rewards offered in online communities are particularly compelling, based on what Dan Siegel, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, calls contingent communication. It happens, he told me, when 'a signal sent gets a signal back.' That simple act, evoking a response from another mind, is a key feature of early childhood development and remains 'deeply rewarding,' Siegel said, satisfying primordial instincts shaped by our evolution as a social species."
The short version: You're not entirely to blame for your screen addiction. There are very deep-rooted reasons why your dependence on Twitter and your inbox can feel like a crack habit.
2. Nature is a wonder drug.
If Roberts's experiment confirmed the scientific consensus about why the internet is so compelling, it also confirmed another evolving line of research--spending time in nature is really, really good medicine for the human brain.
"My rambles have taken me through many miles of greenspace, which, as scientists are belatedly discovering, is a kind of wonder drug itself, with many of the same benefits as meditation," Roberts writes before noting recent studies showing that a walk through nature boosts memory and attention when compared with a stroll through an urban landscape, and more research demonstrating that the distractions of the great outdoors, such as dappled light and green things growing, encourages contemplation and creativity.
No wonder "thinkers from Rousseau to Thoreau to Nietzsche have sworn by walking. Charles Darwin found it so important, he had a specially designed trail constructed on his property," Roberts tells us.
3. Our busyness is political, not just personal.
Roberts and his family took dramatic personal action to combat the ill effects of his life as a modern knowledge worker. And individual effort is a common prescription for what ails us--meditate more, we're advised, or learn better discipline around your gadgets. These suggestions are generally both well meant and helpful, but what Roberts discovered in thinking about his situation over the course of his long, slow year away was that the problem isn't just personal; it's also political.
"Because most Web services are 'free'--that is, supported by advertising--their very survival depends on distracting and bewitching their users. Silicon Valley software engineers design apps that way on purpose; they're quite clever at it. Because America's culture of professional overwork and exhaustion is unrestrained by workplace regulations or conventions governing email, unceasing connectivity has become an unspoken job requirement. Because social groups coalesce and plan online, even brief screenless periods breed FOMO, the fear of missing out," he writes.
Our social, work, and regulatory environments, in other words, are contributing to our burnout. One individual fighting back may be helpful, but maybe collective action is also in order. "Mindfulness may be a necessary form of self-care, even self-defense, but it is not a solution to digital unease any more than driving a Prius is a solution to climate change. Instead of just treating our anxieties exclusively as a symptom of poorly engineered minds in need of hacking, perhaps we also ought to see them as a collective challenge, to be addressed through social and political action," Roberts muses.
If you're curious to learn more of Roberts's takeaways from his extreme experiment in disconnection, New York magazine's Science of Us column also has a fascinating follow-up interview with him in which he delves into the impact of his sabbatical on family life, how long it takes your brain to stop thinking in tweets, and other insights.
If you were logistically possible, would you like to take a year off from online life?