Tom Stafford, author of Mind Hacks: Tips and Tools for Using your Brain and psychologist, thinks that he might be addicted to email.
He tells a disturbing story (extra disturbing because I see myself in it):
I must hit the ‘get mail’ button at least a hundred times a day. Sometimes, if I don’t have any new mail, I hit it again immediately, just to check. I interrupt my work to check my mail even when I know that I’m not going to find anything interesting and that I should just concentrate on what I am supposed to be doing. When I come back to my office it’s the first thing I do. If I’m prevented from checking my mail for more than a few hours I get a little jumpy and remain that way until I have.
He thinks that the answer is to be found in “operant conditioning”, one of the cardinal principles of behaviourist psychology:
This means the mechanisms by which behaviour is shaped by its consequences; how what we do depends on the rewards and punishments of what we did last time. This topic is the heart of behaviourism, that school of thought which dominated psychology for most of the last century.
One solution is to break the connection between action and reward. Like Glen Stansberry and Merlin Mann he recommends reducing the frequency of mail checks. Hard-core fans of the cold turkey school will check mail only twice a day. I would rather cut my heart out with a teaspoon, but it might work for you. Or close Mail.app altogether for six or eight hours. Urrggh.
Other possibilities, he suggests, are weakening the stimulus-action association (hide the Check Mail button), shifting the cost-benefit ratio (electric shocks administered by a mail check?) and rewarding alternative behaviour.
Whatever you might think about Behaviourism, it’s interesting reading, as is the link he provides to an article published eighteen months ago in the New York Times on designing computer interfaces that aid rather than diminish attention.email, internet, addiction, mail checks, behaviourism, addiction, productivity
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