Time for a Digital Diet

February 08, 2016


Electronic communication has killed productivity. Consider the impact of email alone. Today the next email you send will join 999,999,999 others coursing through the Internet.

According to McKinsey, you'll spend about one-third of your workweek checking and responding to email. In fact you probably feel that you never get away from it. Over 50% of employed adults say they check email over the weekend, before or after work, or when they're ill. For heaven's sake, 59% say they check email while in the bathroom.

If you'd like to be happier and more productive, go on a digital diet today. But the odds are pretty good that you'll find reducing your time online is just as difficult as quitting smoking, losing five pounds, or giving up that nightly glass of wine. To succeed, here's what you need to know.

You've been conditioned to open email immediately

I don't think anyone ever intended it, but email has turned us all into the human version of B.F. Skinner's pigeons.

You may have forgotten much of Psych 101. So here's a quick refresher.

Skinner coined the term "operant conditioning" in the early 20th Century. It refers to a mechanism by which behavior is shaped by consequences. In layman's terms most of us repeat certain behaviors dependent upon the rewards or punishments that we receive. Skinner documented the reaction through a series of experiments in which pigeons (and other small animals) were placed in a small box where they could press a bar to receive a reward.

Skinner quickly discovered that when and how often rewards were provided played a critical role in changing or developing behaviors. It turned out that providing continuous positive reinforcement resulted in quick changes in behaviors. Once the reinforcement stopped, however, the new behaviors ceased. Where the delivery of positive reinforcement was inconsistent (given only sometimes) and random, the animals continued to work hard and strive even after the positive reinforcement was removed.

Email acts as a positive variable interval reinforcement. Every time you open email, you know that you may receive a "reward" in the form of a compliment or a connection to a colleague or friend. In other words, you've been conditioned to open email.

Tackling email feels good

Let's turn from psychology to neurochemistry.

Every time you accomplish a task--it doesn't matter how significant or insignificant the task may be--dopamine floods your brain. This highly addictive hormone provides a sense of enjoyment and gratification. Yes, the pleasure people feel from activities as diverse as closing an intricate corporate restructuring to restoring order to a messy linen closet can be attributed directly to dopamine.

Now everyone loves instant gratification. (Participants in the famous "marshmallow experiment," an effort to test children's ability to delay gratification, had to go to great lengths--hiding the marshmallows, closing their eyes, singing songs--to avoid eating the marshmallows that had been placed before them, even though they knew that if they succeeded they would be rewarded with a yummy cookie.) And your brain loves nothing more than receiving the pleasurable feelings related to a cascading flood of dopamine. Completing a quick task like answering emails produces the instant gratification that your brain craves.

Your digital addiction kills your ability to focus

It may feel good to tackle email, but doing so kills your ability to focus on your most important projects.

Some data suggests that 70% of emails are reacted to within six seconds of their arrival, and 85% within two minutes. Here's the real problem: once your train of thought is interrupted by an email, studies suggest it can take 64 seconds before you can refocus.

By the way, it's this "disruption of focusa" affect that can make email and texting fatal when it's combined with activities like driving or walking. One recent Ohio State University found that the number of pedestrian ER visits related to smartphones climbed dramatically between 2004 and 2010. A separate study found that people who use a smartphone while walking were 61% more likely to veer off course and 13% more likely to overshoot their target compared to when they were not distracted.

Your digital addiction can affect how other people view you

Slouching over your smartphone can ruin your posture and your mood according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy.

The Harvard professor garnered a huge amount of attention following her 2012 TED Talk about the impact of posture on self-confidence. Cuddy's earlier research indicated that individuals who practiced a "power pose"--imagine the Jolly Green Giant stance--showed lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of testosterone. After a few short weeks of practice, the combined effect was an increase in feelings of confidence.

More recently, Cuddy has written that sustained looking down at the small screen of your favorite digital device can lower your self-esteem and mood and may make you more fearful. Her preliminary research indicates that there is an inverse relation between the size of your electronic device and the extent to which it affects you--the smaller the device, the more likely you are to hunch making you less productive and happy.a?

For more information on Ms. Cuddy's research, read Your iPhone is Ruining Your Posture and Your Mood, New York Times, December 12, 2015.

What's the cure?

Fundamentally, the solution to most of our bad habits is pretty simple: just stop. If we put a halt to smoking, eating, and drinking, our problems are solved, right? So, check your email less, keep your electronic messages succinct, remember the costs of task-switching, and stash your smartphone away when you walk.

Here are some alternative approaches:

Weaken the action-reward system

Psychologists tell us that if a behavior is not rewarded, it will eventually disappear. Unless you plan to live the life of a hermit, it's unlikely that you can withdraw completely from electronic communications. You can, however, lengthen the amount of time you spend between return visits to your email InBox. By the way, the longer you delay visits to your email InBox, the more likely you are to discover a positive reward, making email a more pleasant experience.

Try going email free one day per week

If you can't go cold turkey, at least limit your exposure to digital communiactions.

For almost a decade now, some companies have promoted email-free Fridays, a single workday during which employees are encouraged to leave digital communications behind and instead rely upon face-to-face and telephone conversations. Many report that the one-day digital fast has resulted in greater productivity and creativity.

What You Need to Know

Students and new professionals should consider a digital diet. Studies show when you send fewer emails you receive fewer emails, which will help improve your productivity.



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