Here I am, calmly working away, when a little red number appears next to the mail symbol on my iMac. A childish excitement overtakes me, and I have to stop what I am doing and see who it is from. Though I've used email for many years, and despite the fact that one often contains something a bit dull or mildly unpleasant, I feel the same each time I receive one. Not only is such behaviour a colossal waste of time, it's also highly stressful, pumping up our heart rate, stressing our brain and ruining our ability to focus on the task at hand - in short, the antithesis of what we need to feel calmer. Receiving a text or a call on our mobiles, instant messaging through our BlackBerrys, surfing Facebook - even typing a postcode into our navigation systems - all have the same effect. According to Ball State University in the US, we spend 69 per cent of our time using multimedia of some kind.
While all this stuff makes our lives easier, being constantly plugged into it can prove exhausting and debilitating. It's as if we're waiting for something to happen at any moment, rather than being able to relax into that moment and enjoy it. As a friend remarked the other day, being constantly in touch also leads to an over-inflated idea of our own importance - I must keep my phone on in case my boss/mum/friend/husband/a perfect stranger might want to contact me. Similarly, we get stressed out, even angry, when we can't get in touch with them.
Let go a bit, re-learn patience, and life starts to be lived again rather than monitored and responded to. If a person is seriously ill, about to give birth, or has some momentous or joyous news, then that's a cause for instantly getting in touch. At other times, it's worth doing a reality check. Would it really be such a big deal if I didn't respond to this for an hour, a day, a weekend? Instantly responding to everything that comes your way can create more work - when I leave something for a day or two, I find that the issue often takes care of itself. These are on the days when I have a deadline and have had to turn off my wireless connection so I can focus. I'll check my emails in batches, usually twice, and when I do I always feel much more in control of myself and the emails I'm writing. I find that just after lunch, when I get a little energy slump, is a good checking time.
This isn't just heartfelt advice. Scientists say that the brain prevents itself from combusting by naturally deleting things every 90 minutes as part of what's called the ultradian cycle, which controls information processing. If we're overloaded, more of this process will be put off until night time, during sleep, which means you'll be depriving yourself of the deep restorative sleep in favour of the REM, information-processing sleep. To help the brain do its daytime filing, take a techno-free break every hour and a half. Make a soothing hot drink, open the window and breathe lungfuls of air, look out to the horizon to give your eyes a rest from screen work, walk to a colleague's desk and speak to them face to face.
Travel gives us a great opportunity to claw back some replenishing me-time. I have yet to get a BlackBerry, but friends that do have started to switch them off during travel, such as when they're on a train, to use the time to read a novel instead like they used to, and I now do the same with my mobile phone. Like being in an aeroplane or staying at a remote hotel where there's no mobile signal, it's a great feeling - no one can reach you, and your time is your own.
While mobiles and BlackBerrys mean you carry your work around with you, they also help bring the home into work, and both situations can be equally as stressful. If you're a working parent, decide with your partner to have different days when you're on call for your children, so it's not always the same person. Conversely, make your house a home in the evenings - give your landline number to your family and friends, and turn off all your wireless devices until morning.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain and Ireland, compendiums of places to retreat and replenish around the world. See @email:www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk