It’s easy to set rules. It’s a lot harder to follow them.
I once set a rule for myself never to check work email after 11pm unless we had a signing or closing. When I told my rule to my non-lawyer friends, they thought it was completely reasonable. So did I.
But I couldn’t do it. I would still compulsively check my work email right before going to sleep. I just wasn’t comfortable not knowing. I could turn off my phone’s notifications – even put it away – but what if something urgent came up? And if I kept notifications on, I would know there was an unread email waiting for me. First, it was the blinking red light of death on my Blackberry, then it was the buzz of my iPhone: both were mocking me, daring me not to check. They knew I had no control.
Even this small step felt impossible. The tension of not uncertainty was greater than the tension of checking my email – even if it meant I had to work that night. I felt pathetic for being unable to follow this simple rule. It spiraled into a toxic mixture of anxiety, guilt, and helplessness. I felt anxious that I would miss an important email, but I felt guilty for not checking my email. And I felt helpless because I was too weak to help myself.
Rationally, I knew following my email rule would benefit for my mental and physical health. I knew the world wouldn’t end and the sun would rise in the morning. But it certainly felt like the world would end. The oldest part of my brain, with its fight-or-flight response of fear, dominated my rational understanding of the consequences.
Errors and the Evidence
Intellectually, I knew that I was catastrophizing. I was anticipating all the things that could go wrong if I didn’t check my email. The deal would blow up, the client would be furious, and I’d get fired. All this would happen if I didn’t check my email at 11:30pm on a Tuesday.
I was focusing only on the worst possible outcome. I tried to consciously think of other scenarios, even while my emotions were drilled in on the worst. Perhaps not checking my email would result in an uncomfortable conversation with a senior associate, but nothing more. A more neutral result might be that I just get reminded to check my email more often. A positive result could be that no one cares, I finish my work in the morning, and I sleep better. I just didn’t know.
I was also trying to read minds. What was the senior associate thinking? Does he think I’m lazy for not responding? How urgent is this email? It’s unclear how important it is. Because my brain had already convinced me I was in a state of emergency, I was tricked into confirmation bias. I could read minds – but only when they said what I already thought.
I had to consider the evidence. What had I observed to show that the associate thought I was lazy? Did I know anything to contradict that thought, that he thought I was productive? What had he actually said?
And in the end, what would happen if the thought were true? Someone else thinking something didn’t make it true, even if it felt that way.
But these arguments – like the rule itself – are hard to translate into action. I knew that I was acting out of fear and still felt compelled to do it. So I kept checking my email, every night, then every morning when I woke up. I felt trapped, in a spin cycle of anxiety.
So what changed? How did I get out? There’s no simple answer. I think most transformations aren’t sudden and dramatic. Instead, they’re slow and halting (even though big decisions have to be made). Two steps forward, one step back. Until eventually you look back and your life has changed for the better.
It’s a combination of your actions, thoughts, and emotions. Sometimes you can focus on how you act and your emotions change. Sometimes you can examine your thoughts (what are the consequences of not checking my email?) and your actions change. Change at all three levels is needed.
What do you think is the most effective way to change in this situation? Or is change even needed?