Remember to Exhale

breatheIt didn’t take long for Linda Stone to figure out that there was a problem with the way she was doing her email. As she scrolled through the slew of messages, her mind racing, Stone realized she was holding her breath. 

Stone, a tech executive who’s worked at both Apple and Microsoft, is not alone. After talking to neuroscientists, physicians and researchers, Stone says about 80 percent of us are holding our breath, too.

How big a deal is that? Turns out it’s actually quite a big deal. Holding our breath messes with the levels of oxygen in our systems, triggering a “fight or flight response,” and contributing to stress-related diseases.

“It isn’t email that is making us crazy. It’s how we’re doing email that is making us crazy,” says Stone. “If we were all driving with no speed limits and no stop signs, there would be chaos. That’s how I think about how many of us are doing email today. There are no speed limits and no stop signs with email.”

Stone, now an author, speaker and consultant, came up with a name for the problem in 2007: email apnea, or the temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email or texting. In her quest to overcome it, she’s talked to athletes and musicians, including famed organist Cameron Carpenter. They understand that mastering their breathing contributes to their ability to perform well – and when Stone tested them, they did not have email apnea.

To help her “tune in,” Stone often uses a heart rate variability monitor, which she clips to her ear while she works on the computer. Red, green and blue lights gave her a visual cue about the state of her nervous system. “Am I in a state of fight or flight, rest and renew, or somewhere in between?” she says. “I needed to become conscious of what I was doing -- was I stressed or was I engaged? -- in order to change it.”

If that’s a bit much for you, start by just trying to remember to exhale. Being mindful of your breathing is about being aware, or conscious, of what’s going on with your mind and body. “When we hold our breath, it creates a fight or flight response,” Stone says. “It’s not exactly the most creative or productive state to be in. It's time to consider the things that can be done to reset the autonomic state. For me, I exhale. I think about what I can do to enjoy the day. I consider if I need to take something off of my list. The more I enjoy what I’m doing, the better my thinking flows. Breathing exercises, or any other exercises that help re-set the autonomic nervous system, can also help us deal with email apnea."

But ultimately, Stone believes we need to set up our own stop signs and speed limits.

Stop signs are the “hard stop, external expectations,” says Stone. That’s when you  tell people what your email policy is, and set expectations around responsiveness. For instance, if you’re going on vacation, you can let correspondents know (nicely) that you’ll be deleting any emails received during that time (Journalist Lauren Young calls this “email bankruptcy.”)  

“There seems to be some universal expectation of instantaneous response for emails and text messages,” Stone says. “Imagine if email was your home.’ The way we do email today is as if the house is made of glass with all the doors and windows open all the time.  With our physical homes, the only time we'd be likely to welcome a break-in is if a fire-fighter needs to get in to put out a fire.  Otherwise, we decide if and when we answer the front door, lift or lower the shades, and open or close the windows.”

Speed limits refer to “how” we’re doing email. Here, the driver has discretion. “Are we doing it breathlessly, in bed the minute we wake up?” Stone asks. “Are we bringing the phone into the bathroom, picking it up at every stop light? Do we have that feeling that if we’re not checking it obsessively we’re doing something wrong? Do we send out unnecessary emails?”

Stone recommends that we start asking ourselves questions such as, “How do I feel? Have I exhaled lately?” She counsels, "If you’re not sure how you feel, it’s time to get up and walk away from the computer -- and your email!"

Stone admits that no single individual is likely to be able to take back total control of her time and attention. "The idea of control is an illusion,” she says.  It's about making peace with chaos. Making peace with a world that's not in our control. W need to assess what we really do or do not need to accomplish, and, just as importantly, celebrate accomplishments at the end of the day with a walk, a cup of tea or by spending time with loved ones."

She reminds me that in the 1800s, attention was defined not only as what we choose to focus on, but also as what we choose to exclude from our focus. But since then, we’ve forgotten the part about what to exclude. “Are we being tyrannical with ourselves or are we being reasonable?” Stone asks. “And are we breathing?” -- CG


If you liked this story, you might also like:
Quitting Time
The Best Email Managment Tactic Ever 
Lucky You

Image courtesy of flickr user Transguyjay




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