A few years ago, Disney Pixar released the movie Up. It’s a sweet little film about a rather crotchety old widower and a young scout who accidentally end up on an adventure together. Not long after they touch down in a far-off land they are greeted by a dog named Dug. He’s a loveable golden retriever who bounds affectionately into their arms and then shocks them both when he speaks English via a special collar translator worn around his neck. The only trouble is, he often interrupts what he’s saying mid-sentence, shouts “squirrel,” and points for a second or two.
In a lot of ways, we humans are a lot like cute, furry Dug. Only our “squirrels” are the bings and buzzes emanating from our digital devices. One minute we’re working productively on something, but the second our phone vibrates, we will drop everything and turn to it…squirrel!
These constant interruptions literally torpedo our productivity. It is estimated the average person wastes 2 hours/day on email, 40 minutes/day on Facebook, 12 minutes/day on Twitter, 10 minutes/day on LinkedIn – and an additional 96 minutes/day switching back and forth between tasks. That means all of our squirrel chasing is costing each of us about 22.5 hours in lost productivity a week. That’s a staggering amount!
Why are we “addicted” to our phones, email, and other e-communications?
There are two big reasons why we feel compelled to incessantly check our phones, emails, facebook pages, twitter accounts, and the like.
The first is because there is a powerful conditioning loop at work. Our digital devices often “reward” us with feelings of belonging and significance when we respond to them; that email from mom, the high-five from a boss, they make us feel good. These two emotions are paramount to humans. If we were rats, they would be our cheese. When a stimuli, like an email ping, is paired with a powerful reward and then delivered at unpredictable intervals, just as happens with our digital devices, we will literally become addicted to the behavior associated with getting the powerful reward. In this case that means we literally can’t resist the urge to check email or grab our phones when they beep at us.
The second reason we’re addicted is because of a little human trait social scientists call reciprocity, or the compulsion to respond in kind to others. It is a trait that enables individuals to make contributions to the larger social group without worrying they are losing out. We are all taught from a very young age to return favors, lest we be shunned as an ingrate. Guess what, it applies to communications too. One social scientist, Professor Robert Cialdini, actually conducted an experiment a few decades ago in which he sent holiday greeting cards to a few hundred people he chose at random from the AZ white pages. Low and behold, he was soon inundated with holiday cards from them, even though they had no idea who he was. You see, our compulsion to respond is hard-wired.
4 strategies for overcoming your compulsion
Although the pull to drop everything and respond is strong, we are not at the mercy of our digital devices. Here are four, relatively simple strategies for resisting their siren call.
1. Reduce the intrusiveness of the stimuli.
Since the stimuli trigger a conditioning loop most of us are unable to resist, one of the most effective things you can do is reduce the intrusiveness of the stimuli when you need to focus on something. That means, turning off all alerts, buzzes, dings, pop-ups that could distract you from your work at hand. If you have a Mac, you can also “hide” your dock while you are working on something, so you won’t see any visual indicators that you have mail. We recommend turning them off for good because you don’t ever really need to be at their mercy.
2. Remove the reward dispensers from your environment (temporarily).
There are programs, like Freedom, and Concentrate that enable you to lock yourself out of “rewarding” programs like email social media sites when you need to really focus on a task. The programs are $10 and $29 respectively, but worth their weight in gold. Using them elevates you from rat in a cage being conditioned by external forces to that of the scientist who is actually doing the conditioning.
3. Reward yourself for good behavior.
Use the powerful emotional rewards of significance and belonging to strengthen new, more productive behavior. For example, if you currently respond to every email, text, etc. the second it comes in, try rewarding yourself with a peek at those emails after you finish a task successfully.
4. Send fewer emails/texts and make what you do send brief and to the point.
Did you know that you can use the power of reciprocity to actually curtail the amount of email you receive? Consider this, Kim Davis, a woman we interviewed for our book Pretty Neat, tried a little experiment. She added a signature line to all of her emails that simply said, “Please keep our email boxes uncluttered, only reply all if it is critical everyone receives your reply.” She immediately noticed a drop in reply all clutter in her inbox. She also noticed others in her department, and then in other departments, adopting her signature line as well. In that spirit, if you send fewer emails, you will receive fewer emails. And if you make a point of sending brief, concise emails, you are more likely to get that same kind of missive in return. Make reciprocity work for you, not against you.