The Psychological Reason You're Rubbish At Replying To Messages

I could not be more guilty of this.
Bevan Goldswain via Getty Images

Like running a 10k or cooking a lasagne, I can commit to a full-on text chat sometimes, when I feel like doing something consuming and involved.

But getting an opening text at 2pm on a workday feels a bit like being asked to make my own ragu on a Tuesday evening; surely nobody’s doing that? Where do they find the time? It sounds ridiculous, but the thought of replying exhausts me.

Well, it turns out that not only am I not alone, but I could also have something called digital burnout.

What’s “digital burnout?

A 2019 study found that over half of office workers are suffering from what they called “digital overload.”

“Respondents called out things like the onslaught of notifications and always-on email culture as distractions, stress inducers and roadblocks,” making replying to texts tricky, the study found.

And speaking to Cosmopolitan, Dr. Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health at AXA PPP healthcare, said “Anyone with a smartphone will probably have felt the effects of digital burnout at some point or another.”

“It’s becoming more prevalent as most of us now own a smartphone, meaning that we’re being flooded with information almost constantly, which can at times feel overwhelming.”

“When we’re ‘always on’ we don’t allow ourselves the headspace to switch off properly, which can lead to mental fatigue,” he added.

Perhaps that would explain why, though the average American’s screen time rose to 4.2 hours in 2021 (higher than ever before), they had a mean of 47 unread texts on their phone in that same year.

What are the signs of digital burnout?

According to the World Health Organisation, general burnout can show up as detachment and distance from the people and work in your life, exhaustion and feelings of negativity, and reduced efficacy.

And speaking specifically about digital burnout, a 2020 study found that “the demands (subjective or environmental) for permanently being online are being associated with the high levels of physiological activation, feelings of tension, perceived expectations, discomfort, and anxiety.“

Feeling overwhelmed by “small” requests and having an outsized reaction to online requests can also be signs.

What can I do about it?

Well, part of the problem with navigating the difficult online landscape is that we’re all playing by different ― and made-up ― handbooks.

Coye Cheshire, professor of social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told the BBC the rules are “not written down anywhere.”

He added that seeing as we don’t know how others text, we project our own riles onto others as though it’s the norm ― so perhaps shrugging others’ expectations off where possible is necessary to relieve yourself of digital burnout.

Dr. Winwood’s recommendations to Cosmo include muting your phone when you don’t want texts and only replying when you’re ready; calling instead of texting; leaving group chats you’re not active in; and switching your phone off overnight.

Cheshire recommends having an open conversation with your friends if you feel our texting expectations are different ― as he says, there’s no rulebook, and people can feel thrown for a loop when others don’t play by theirs.