The benefits of disconnecting every now and again

I'm a fine one to talk. I am one of the most connected people I know, and I know that I sometimes need to moderate my usage. Here's why. In a study presented at the Association for Computing Machinery's Computer-Human Interaction Conference last week, researchers described how heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

Five days - that's how long it took to get participants' heart rate variability to a more naturally occurring state. This is important: other research has shown that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to a variety of health problems.

It also seems that when you remove email, people multitask less (although multitasking doesn't really exist - you actually rapidly switch between tasks), and they experience less stress. Those people who had no email reported that they were more able to do their jobs, stay on task, and experienced fewer time wasting interruptions. And it seems like objective behavioral measurements supported these reports. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour

Participants were happier too, even though it took some convincing for them to take part in the study. They reportedly loved being without email, especially if their manager supported it. The only downside was that people felt somewhat isolated without their email - though they managed to get critical information form those around them who did have email.

So, what can you do to help?

  • Email vacations seem like a good idea - if you can still get the information you need
  • Perhaps batching your email is a good idea too - turn off that email alert pop-up and sound that means you are tempted to switch screen to check email
  • Designate times during the day when you'll deal with your inbox
  • And every now and again, it seems like a good idea to disconnect completely - perhaps an email vacation while still on the job.
  • Managers take note - it's also a good way to take care of your team.