“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” by Jeremy Dean.
Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won’t cost you any more, but I’ll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.
Facebook can get out of hand. Not just late-to-cook-dinner out of hand, but 5-hours-a-day,-sneaking-off-work-to-check-it-until-you’re-fired,-then-sneaking-peeks-at-it-during-your-session-with-a-psychologist out of hand.
Some people set their email program to download every 5 minutes, even though there’s usually nothing, and if there’s something, it’s usually spam. 59% of people check their email in the loo. Of course it only takes a moment to check email, but it takes another minute or so to get back into whatever you were doing before. One minutes, every five minutes.
Email is what behavioural psychologists call a “variable-interval reinforcement schedule.” You never know when the next email will arrive, and you never know how interesting it will be when it does. So you put up with the frustration when you get nothing worth reading, and the habit is strengthened when you do get something. Like slot machines.
Checking email every 5 minutes at work reduces your productivity. Checking email every 5 minutes on holiday can lead to burnout and/or divorce.
Some people check email once or twice a day. Some people check it every 30 seconds and always respond immediately. Some people feel it’s taking over, and some delete anything that doesn’t look interesting. Jeremy Dean suggests that for most of us, checking once every 45 minutes or so would work better. Other mini breaks might consist of shutting your eyes for 5 seconds to rest them, or getting a drink. You’re unlikely to do that every 30 seconds, it’s less tiring, and you could think about your work while you do it.
Multitasking doesn’t really work. You’re actually switching rapidly between tasks, and probably forgetting stuff each time. And it stops you ever getting into a flow state.
Twitter takes multitasking a step further. You can hold multiple conversations at once, although 80% of users only talk about themselves, and 10% of users generate 90% of all tweets. In practice, it’s not so much conversations as information spread. But while you’re waiting for some juicy information, it’s another “variable-interval reinforcement schedule.” So we tend to check Twitter at shorter and shorter intervals until we make a conscious decision to change.
Does checking email and twitter every 30 seconds count as an addiction? Sort of, but it’s probably more useful to ask whether it’s making you miserable. And it’s often a symptom of depression or anxiety as much as a cause of it. The catch is that the more your life has been screwed up by overuse of the Internet, the more likely you are to distract yourself by using the Internet. And the internet is pretty much always available.
It’s up to us how we use it.