Rubbish at replying to WhatsApps? Here's the very legit reason why

a ginger haired woman looking bemused and holding her phone
Why you're so bad at replying to text messagesGuido Mieth - Getty Images

Although, for many of us, it can feel like we've had to become masters of digital interaction (hello WFH, dating apps, and constantly evolving social media apps), somehow that doesn't seem to translate into us being better at replying to messages. The more WhatsApps roll in, the more you can feel inclined to keep the app firmly closed, letting the number of chats build and notifications fester (along with a sense of an ever-increasing to-do list).

Of course it would probably be easier to just go in and read the messages, but that means having to reply then and there, and sometimes you just don't have the headspace to do that. So instead you sit with the guilt of a series of neglected conversations weighing down on you, feeling like a bad friend.

But perhaps you should start going easier on yourself, because there's a real reason why it's not so easy to automatically dish out responses every time your phone pings.

Why do I struggle to reply to messages?

According to Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health at AXA PPP healthcare, this reduced desire to engage in online conversation could, in itself, be an indication of burnout.

"Anyone with a smartphone will probably have felt the effects of digital burnout at some point or another," says the doctor. "This form of burnout is caused by prolonged use of technology and is characterised by fatigue and feeling stressed. 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."

Owning a phone that holds numerous social apps – as well as your emails, most likely – makes you feel like you're always accessible. And that's tiring; we all need down time, but if our down time is plagued with guilty feelings about not having responded to messages, it's not relaxing at all.

"Messaging apps have come into their own in recent times and are used for both personal and work communications, meaning the lines can become blurred in terms of boundaries," points out the expert. Sound familiar?

"Our smartphones are always close by and it's easier than ever to connect with people all over the world – meaning that we’re often messaging people across different time zones. But when we're 'always on' we don't allow ourselves the headspace to switch off properly, which can lead to mental fatigue," Dr Winwood adds.

woman looking at her phone overwhelmed
bymuratdeniz - Getty Images

How can I take control of the way I reply to messages?

First up, it's finally time to start reframing guilt over being a so-called rubbish friend into empathy for ourselves, viewing it as headspace that will prevent us from feeling drained. That way, when we do come to respond, it'll be a more meaningful interaction anyway.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. You can't just 'switch off' feelings of guilt. Instead, Dr Winwood suggests enforcing some small changes that will set boundaries around your online interactions:

  1. Mute conversations – Start to become conscious of how you use your device. Don’t feel bad about muting certain group chats if you need a break — you can always unmute them when you are ready. If it is really urgent, people will contact you directly.

  2. Get an alarm clock – It’s easy to use your phone as an alarm clock but this encourages you to look at it as soon as you wake. Try a conventional alarm clock and turn your phone off overnight.

  3. Set digital limits – Check out apps designed to block sites at certain times of the day. This helps to avoid that mindless checking that we all fall victim to.

  4. Pick up the phone – Messaging apps have been a lifeline during lockdown, but try setting a goal to call one friend a day instead of using virtual messaging, to consciously reduce your dependency on apps. This not only allows you to have a proper catch up, it also fills the void in terms of knowing what’s going on and can enable a richer conversation.

  5. Remove the expectation of an instant response – Help alleviate the pressure of needing to respond instantly by making use of app functions, such as turning off read receipts on your messages (a gamechanger) or restricting details of your whereabouts to your contacts.

  6. Detox your group chats – It can be overwhelming when you’re in a million different group chats, even on mute. Are there any groups you can leave to help manage the mounting notifications?

Try these, and see if it eases the digital burnout load.

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