Why email is addictive (and what to do about it)

Email is addictive

Like lots of people who sit in front of a computer all day, I am addicted to email. This worries me for two reasons. The first is the sheer strength of my compulsion. 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 suppossed 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.

This is all rather sad, but the second reason I am worried by my email addiction is that I work in a psychology department and we’re supposed to understand how these things work. Now email isn’t a drug – it doesn’t deliver a chemical into your bloodstream. Yet it is clearly addictive. I’m a normal rational person (which is to say I’m just normally maladjusted) and I know that I don’t need to check my email as often as it do – certainly not immediately after checking it the first time for Goodness’ sake! – but still I am compelled. What’s going on, and can psychological science help me out?

Read more below the fold

Why is email addictive?

So, I think I’ve got an idea of what’s going on with email, and if I’m right it should provide some clues as to how I can stop myself being so addicted. The key is what psychologists call ‘operant conditioning’. 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. Many lab animals, and many person-hours, were recruited to help understand exactly how rewards and punishments could be arranged to influence behaviour. One suprising finding is that if you want to train an animal to do something, consistently rewarding that behaviour isn’t the best way. The most effective training regime is one where you give the animal a reward only sometimes, and then only at random intervals. Animals trained like this, with what’s called a ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’, work harder for their rewards, and take longer to give up once all rewards for the behaviour is removed. There’s a logic to this. Although we might know that we’ve stopped rewarding the animal, it has got used to performing the behaviour and not getting the reward. Because ‘next time’ might always be the occasion that produces the reward, there’s never definite evidence that rewards have stopped altogether.

Email is addictive because it is a variable-interval reinforcement schedule

We’re animals – we have animal brains. All animal brains have the circuitry in place for producing operant conditioning. It’s a fundamental psychological process, and just the sort that can create behaviours what operate automatically, or in spite of our consciously telling ourselves we should do otherwise. Like me checking my checking my email. Checking email is a behaviour that has variable interval reinforcement. Sometimes, but not everytime, the behaviour produces a reward. Everyone loves to get an email from a friend, or some good news, or even an amusing web link. Sometimes checking your email will get you one of these rewards. And because you can never tell which time you check will produce the reward, checking all the time is reinforced, even if most of the time checking your email turns out to have been pointless. You still check because you never know when the reward will come.

I have just proved to myself how automatic my email checking behaviour has become. I am writing this in a hotel room which doesn’t have internet access. When sorting through my email (you don’t need a connection to delete email you’ve replied to, or are never going to reply to) I still hit the ‘check mail’ button at the rest points of the read-consider-delete cycle I am performing. My reflective self knows that there is no internet connection, so there is no way in hell I’m going to have new email – but that knowledge doesn’t filter down to the part of me hitting the ‘check email’ button. The habit, engrained in my mind by operant conditioning, is isolated from conscious knowledge, and in part from deliberate control; it can start without me thinking about it or even me wanting it to.

How can we design in solutions?

If operant condition is at the root of the problem, what’s the solution? Over a hundred years of experimental psychology has provided a rigorous characterisation of behavioural conditioning, and of the process by which reinforced behaviours disappear – known as extinction. By looking at each stage of the process by which a behaviour becomes conditioned, we can throw up ideas for addressing the problem of ‘unconditioning’ them.

Weakening the action-reward link

If a behaviour isn’t rewarded then it will gradually disappear. The problem is that we don’t want to remove the reward (email), so we need, instead, to weaken the strength of the link between the action and the reward. A simple delay would do this – imagine a five minute delay between hitting the check email button and getting new email. A delay is doubly-effective because the longer the delay the more likely you are to have email and so the more consistent the reward will be – and hence the less strong its reinforcing effect (I can see this is action when I go away for a week and check my email when I come back. I might have hundreds of emails, but there’s often nothing that seems very interesting. The combined effect just isn’t as rewarding as the anticipation of getting one hundred single emails). In theory, the opposite end of this ‘consistency strategy’ would be to check email constantly. If you check your email every second then the consistency of the reward increases – you consistently get nothing! The action-habit might extinguish because the action is now rewarded so infrequently relative to the number of times it is performed. How to do this practically? Have your inbox constantly visable, so that there is no jump from wondering if you have new mail/seeing a ‘new mail’ alert and knowing that it isn’t that important (although a down side is that if the new email is intrinsically distracting – such as a good joke, hot piece of gossip or invite out – it will now definitely interrupt when it arrives).

Removing the action all together, so that you cannot demand an email check, doesn’t solve the problem – we just move the association from the action of hitting ‘check mail’ to the action of opening your email client to see if there is any mail there. One strategy is to wait 30 seconds from the appearance of the alert before checking to see what kind of mail has arrived – if you can internalise the delay.

Weaking the stimulus-action association

Automatic behaviours such as email are contingent on environmental triggers – they need the right circumstance to become active, since they aren’t invoked by a smart, deliberate consicous process. So one way to decrease email checking behaviour might be to decrease the association between stimuli and the action. Moving or removing the ‘check mail’ button will stop it hijacking your action-stream when it is in your field of view. Similarly, so will stopping email alerts all together, but it leaves you with the problem of wondering what is going on while you’re attention is on another app (are you missing out on some important information?). Changing the consistency of the environmental trigger could work. If the ‘new mail’ appeared slowly, so it didn’t grab your attention, was in a different place each time, or was a different shape/colour/icon then your low-level monitoring systems wouldn’t be able to form an association between its appearence and automatically triggering the ‘check mail’ interrupt habit. When you wanted to check your email you could scan for the icon – it could still be perfectly obvious, but the lack of consistent appearence would prevent it getting wired into a direct channel in your brain.

Social solutions

I don’t think the solution is social – getting people to never email you urgent information wouldn’t work. There would always be invites for coffee that someone didn’t feel like knocking on your door or phoning you to make, but which they’d still like you to know about (and you’d still like to know, so you’ll be checking your email for them). Plus there’ll always be important information which isn’t urgent, but which we’re still going to want to know as soon as it is available (look at news – it rarely has any immediate consequence for our daily lives, but checking it is how many of us start the day).

Shifting the cost-benefit ratio

A classical approach to changing habits is to shift the cost-benefit pay-off. If checking or reading email is made harder to do, mayhbe we can increase the cost of the action and hence make the overall reward of getting email less. More difficult interfaces maybe? Several screens to click through to get the email? Passwords and ‘are you sure’ dialogue boxes? Punishment is the ultimate ingredient that you can add to alter the pay-off matrix. Except for those of us with immense self-disicipline (“if i check email in the next hour, no coffee at lunchtime”) self-imposed punishment isn’t an obvious strategy (and are those with self-discipline likely to have a problem with getting distracted anyway?).

[Although, on reflection, I don’t think this question is as rhetorical as it sounds here. The problem is not with your ability to deliberately schedule and implement actions (including actions such as self-punishments), the problem is with automatically evoked actions (i.e. checking email) and then getting distracted by the consequences. These are two types of actions and it is entirely conceivable that they might be differently ammeanable to the deliberate control of our reflective selves]

Rewarding an alternative, incompatible behaviour

A final strategy, and one that is used in animal training to remove problem behaviours, is to reinforce an alternative, incompatible action. If you have a problem with your pet eagle landing on your head the most efficient way to stop it is to reward landing on a mat at your feet, rather than struggle with extinguishing head-landing. What this would mean in the context of email checking I will leave as an exercise to the reader.

Over to you

So, what I’m really interested in is in seeing what people think. If some of what I’ve said makes sense, what other ways are there to use it to make email less addictive? Or maybe I’ve got the solution completely wrong. Or the problem? I’d like to hear either way

Some things I read while writing this follow (thanks to Marc Baizman for the Katie Hafner article in the NYT)


Andrew Brown on why the internet-addiction will be like alcoholism for this generation of writers

‘Husband training’, New York Times article about using behaviourist principles in your marriage

February 10, 2005 New York Times, You There, at the Computer: Pay Attention by Katie Hafner (designing interfaces that work with our attention, rather than distract)

20 thoughts on “Why email is addictive (and what to do about it)”

  1. Hullo!
    I’m an aspiring computer scientist, and anyway, my two solutions have been:
    1) have a good mail notifier that displays the sender’s name and the message’s subject, and have the mail notifier check for new mail very regularly, like 1 to 5 minutes. Especially around 1 minute, the idea that new mail might now exist since last I checked but before the next auto-check shrinks to near insignificance. Unfortunately, checking an e-mail server every minute causes a lot of annoying traffic for it. I no longer ask to get new mail with the current frequency. Ideally in the future, computers will be notified when new mail arrives rather than having to poll a server for it.
    restrict my computing privileges, removing the ability to request new mail and to exit my mail client myself, and lock it to check mail every 60 minutes. This way, I have no recourse for an hour but to do something else. I might look at the clock a bit more, but I function better.
    PS. the comment previewing here does not translate my line breaks into HTML 😥

  2. I have a similar problem, with my magic bookmarks page (see link), which refreshes several times an hour. I keep it open all the time in my browser as the first tab, and reload it just like you check for new mail. I guess the first stage would be to close it so checking for new stuff requires an extra step.

  3. Like Richard I just rely on active email notifiers. As a result, I never sit there clicking “Check Mail” unless I’m on the phone with someone who just sent me something.
    My outlook notifier also tells me the subject and a bit of the first sentance; thus, I know what the email is basically about — I wish my gmail notifier did that.
    And yes I often do end up checking the email immediately upon notification. However, I’ve found that I’m more productive if I quickly check and then reply or delete, rather than wait for my email to stack up menacingly.

  4. Another solution is to have more interesting non-email tasks to keep you engaged. Like the person that constantly clicks between TV channels, you have to be bored to get around to checking emails frequently. If I’m fascinated by another activity, email becomes more of a drag. If I’m bored and looking for a reason to avoid a task, email is that reason.

  5. As a professional behavior analyst and animal trainer, I really liked this article. 🙂 I do have one correction — intermittent reinforcement is the best schedule for *maintaining* a behavior, not for training it initially, as implied above. Important difference; but here we’re talking about an already fluent behavior, so a VSR is relevant.
    I think the simplest effective solution to a true addiction problem would be to increase the cost of the behavior — a single click is far too “cheap.” Your suggestion of multiple screens, passwords, etc. is right on. Email checking is currently a “light-switch behavior;” few people worry about learning to distinguish between several switches on a single plate because it’s not a hassle to flip more than one. Making the behavior more costly for the same potential of reinforcement would cause a lower rate of emittance.
    But truthfully, I’d look at this situation in my own life and think, “Hm, not worth the time to train.” There are a few things that just aren’t worth the effort — my dog sits slightly off to one side of the door instead of directly in front of it when he requests its opening, and while it’d be simplicity itself to reinforce only straight sits, why bother? In the same way, my email behavior — while quite possibly falling under the label of “addiction” — aren’t problematic enough to stimulate me into modifying them. It’s a cheap behavior and it doesn’t really detract from my productivity, so it’s not important. I won’t receive significant reinforcement for changing my behavior, so I’ll continue my current behavior. 🙂

  6. It’s now making sense ‚Äwhy I seem to regularly try and change the way I approach email. While I was initially trying to find ways to escape email there’s now a pattern to my madness! Changing from Apple’s Mail to rerouting everything via GMail to using Dashboard widgets, to removing Mail from the Dock and having to find it (!) before I can check email all answer to your description.
    Perhaps I should take to drinking, or, someone could invent a widget that will blur the screen to the same effect.
    In the process, I have noticed that the checking-email-habits also influence the way I read an respond to email: being able to see what’s there and have it lurking in the back of my mind ‚Äì this is quality time I can use to consider if and how I need to respond to them.
    Despite this being an argument for the frequent checker, I would love some more options to remove my going-mental-when-the-net’s-down-syndrome and other strategies to get unplugged.
    I have already started leaving my mobile phone at home when leaving the house! What’s next?

  7. Here’s what I do to avoid email addiction: so called “time management” tools. (David Allen has written a notorious book on the subject).
    The idea is that you plan a time of the in your agenda (say, daily, from 1300 until 1400) to check your mail. You teach yourself the behaviour to only check at that time, for instance by allowing yourself to eat dessert or drink coffee if you do. Then, when checking email, instead of replying to each one, when you open it, you compile a list of to do’s for your email, while filing all emails. Next you plan (make appointments with yourself) when you will do all of these replies. It doesn’t always work, but it helps a lot for me. I try to only open MsOutlook in the forlorn hours after lunch…

  8. I’m glad I came across your article. I’ve been addicted to checking my e-mail frequently for a few years now. My problem is that I’m not supposed to check my personal e-mail at work. But the longest I’ve been able to go without checking it is one day. Then I start right back up again checking it probably twice per hour. And I have to go through a few different screens in the process. So increased “cost” doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t disrupt my work too much but it creates guilt and congnitive dissonence for me. I like to see myself as a good employee so I don’t like that I check my personal e-mail at work. I’ve noticed a few things that do help. I do a lot of number related work so listening to new stimulating music helps but it’s hard to constantly have new music and my mind get’s tired of it after awhile. I think my addiction is partially for stimulation and partially for connection. There was a period of time where I rarely checked my personal e-mail at work but I had a girl who text my cell phone a lot during the day. So that fulfilled my need for connection/stimulation. If I have a really challenging project I check my personal e-mail less frequently because I get caught up in the project. But that’s usually just a half day thing. When I get home from work I still check my e-mail, my myspace e-mail, and my match.com e-mail. All very addicting. Right now I’m single so I know I won’t be so bad when I end up with another girlfriend but for now I sometimes get so caught up in it that I’ll check it in the middle of the night.
    So at work I think the only solution would be to somehow rig my computer so I can only go to specific sites I need for my job. Admitting that feels really pathetic but right now while I’m single I think it might be the only solution.
    Or I could just get a wireless PDA and use it to check my e-mail at work. That way I’m not using my work computer and that would get rid of the guilt as long as I only checked it on breaks and lunch. It would be nice to have a PDA that vibrated everytime I got an e-mail. I only get about 5 per day so it would be less distracting than checking it all the time.
    For my work e-mail I have outlook which has information about the e-mail pop up on my screen as soon as it comes in. That works out well and like the guy above, I respond right away which seems best.

  9. Great article and discussion. I am an executive coach and training and I have conducted many programs on reducing email addiction. Here is a recent post:
    Just say no, to email addiction. In a recent Symantec survey, 21% of executives admitted to being email dependent – compulsively checking their e-mail and panicking when they can’t. Email addicts suffer a 10-point drop in IQ, more than twice the drop recorded by marijuana users concluded a clinical trial of over a thousand participants by HP and the University of London. They found email addicts developed an inability to distinguish between trivial and important messages. 20% consistently jeopardized important relationships by “checking their messages” in the middle of a conversation. Moreover word ‚ÄúCrackberry‚Äù can now be found in the Oxford Dictionary.
    I have a free mini-ebook, End Email Addiction, available for download at http://www.businesstransformed.com/end email addiction.pdf
    Thanks Paul

  10. Sorry, something went wrong there. Here’s a repeat of my earlier comment:
    I was fascinated by your thoughts on e-mail addiction.
    I have been doing research on the subject. A while ago I wrote a survey article – as it has had an excellent response it might be of interest to you. There is a link below.
    Best wishes,

  11. I think Shinteetah definitely has a point – if checking our emails is a mission somehow, that’s a definite way to demotivate ourselves from bothering.
    Another thing to consider which has not been mentioned but may also cause that compulsion to check your email is something along the lines of what Joe wrote about – the need to connect to someone.
    Perhaps it’s not the receiving of emails itself, but the contact with a particular person who they are corresponding with or with the person themselves that some people become addicted to.
    It’s also incredibly easy to slip into fantasy mode when you communicate in ways other than face to face. You may not even realise you are doing it, putting that person on a kind of pedestal, hanging out for your next ‘fix’. It really can feel like an addiction.
    I stumbled across a book recently which you may find interesting if this is the reason you believe you are compulsively checking your emails. ‘Facing Love Addiction’ by Pia Mellody
    What she writes about does make a lot of us who think our relationships ressemble a soap opera look like so-called love addicts but it might help you look objectively at your own behaviour and help you decide for yourself if it needs modifying.

  12. Just to say that my use of the word “addictive” in this post was ill-advised.
    Addiction has a proper medical meaning, and it is wrong to confuse it with the colloqual usage meaning, roughly, weakly compulsive or “more-ish”.
    The state I’m talking about in this post is one of attentional biasing (due, I claim, to the learning schedule which email arrival generates), not one of significiant holistic distress that would characterise clinical addiction.
    Vaughan, on this site, has written about addiction creep
    “‘Internet addiction’ lacks validity finds another study”
    “Addiction to addiction: the horrifying reality”

  13. Hi there
    I really enjoyed this article and the posts, the premise put forward made a lot of sense. Further, the lack of focus that (for me) frequent e-mail checking engenders is concerning – previously I used to be able to sit at a computer for hours without getting distracted and now it’s a huge effort to not check email for even five minutes. Another aspect is the “check and read” email thing, but not respond, and then read again, and not respond.. etc.. which is a huge waste of time as emails get read more than once before a response is finally prepared. The only thing that would work for me is to consciously set it aside (for example I didn’t allow myself to check email while reading the article), and then my reward for finishing the article is to check email. Have been recognizing, though, that it really does add very little to my life.

  14. I’ve been suffering from too-frequent-e-mail-checking-bug for quite a while now. As a result several areas of my life have suffered:
    *social life

    In addition to your explanation, I see too frequent e-mail checking as a habit and temptation bound together, making it more difficult to stop or decrease the behaviour.

    For temptation control, the best approach supported by science (to my knowledge) is avoiding the stimulus. Solutions for that are:
    * getting out of the house where there are no computers with internet available
    * not having internet access at home, only a PC (I’ve tried that, cannot afford because of too many important and urgent e-mails, and research for education)
    * having a very involving thing to do at home that you really enjoy and get carried away

    Now another aspect of this problem is it being a habit: checking e-mail the first thing in the morning, when coming home, during work etc. that has perhaps been developing over several years. The best known scientifically supported (to my knowledge) solution to breaking habits is vigilant monitoring: “Stop, don’t do it”.

    While we can try to stop and not do it, the temptation may be too strong and pull us in anyway, this is why we need to be tied to a mast so that we would not jump overboard to where the dangerous Sirens are. For this we have programmes and extensions that block e-mail access at times specified by the user.

    A personal experience of mine has also been the “all or nothing approach”. If I decide not to check my e-mail for a week, I would find it easier after some days and the longer I wait, the easier it becomes. This goes well with the idea that this way a habit would start to be weakened. “Don’t do it for a week, then you’ll get used to it”.

  15. Very interesting article and comments.

    I find for me that the need to check emails (or my phone for SMS texts) often is associated with a strong need to “connect” with other humans.

    I am a single, divorced male who works as an airline pilot – I don’t drink so therefore I’m not usually in the sort of places where many people gather to socialise and when I’m at work (or in a foreign city) I’m often alone, without a spouse or children to connect with, therefore when there are people in my life who value emailing or messaging me, I get a big kick out of their desire to communicate with me.

    So when communications occur, or have occurred – for example from my parents, my brothers, some friends, or a potential new love interest (or like at the moment, an old love interest who I still have a desire to rebuild something with – probably irrationally) – I find myself compulsively checking my phone or emails to see if someone has sent me a message.

    When I get one I feel euphoric, especially if it is from that special person, but of course, as mentioned earlier by one of the replies, the communication via written word does not provide the full experience of face to face communication, nor does it accurately convey meanings of every nuanced feeling or thought.

    Of course face to face we can still misconstrue meanings but in written messages it is even easier to do so.

    The way I see this problem in my case; how it affects me; how I can alter my reliance upon it and learn to become okay without the expectation of some brief thrill of a communication is as follows:

    I deliberately turn off my phone and any other communication devices when I don’t have a reason for having them on. I am not “on call” 24/7 for my family, friends or love interest, so deliberately turning these things off does not have any negative ramifications in truth, although initially I do experience some fear.

    Of course there may be times where I have made a commitment to be available for someone or where there is another valid reason to stay contactable, but on close examination many times I think that I need to be available are just irrational thoughts and most things can wait until a specific time when I do turn the devices back on.

    After I have gone “incommunicado” I find there seems to be a lot of time and mental space to fill. This can sometimes leave me feeling a little empty, alone, scared, but I try to view these feelings as okay. They are merely symptoms of my decision to change from a frantic life where some stimulation is required to one where I value myself more. I try to practice some form of mediation prayer, or other mindfulness action – like simply stopping and finding something interesting around me – a tree, a bird, a person, a piece of art or architecture, some sound, or simply observing the beauty of silence. These thoughts and actions still my mind and leave me with a more whole feeling, a feeling of acceptance that just for now everything is ok. The world has not stopped turning simply because I had not been able to possibly receive a message or email (and mostly when I turn my devices on an hour or half a day later there are no urgent messages).

    I’m not a doctor, so even if a loved one had experienced a medical issue there is nothin I can do. The “what if” scenarios can play out in my mind if I repeat them enough (for example: what if my father was dying and I missed out on saying some “final words” because my phone was off), but these are usually irrational thoughts – the likelihood of me being able to somehow resolve some situation, or magically find connection with a loved one as they lay dying is truly simply a romantic myth.

    The more I practice these behaviours (turning off devices and finding solace in my own company), the easier it becomes, and I find that when I do communicate with others I am doing so from a calmer, more accepting, loving perspective, therefore all of my interactions are more rewarding.

    I certainly have found that the manic checking for messages or emails can never be rewarded in any way that assuages the anxiety and stress of expectation caused by the need to check them, but it is an ongoing battle and only by repeatedly stopping to observe my own motivations and feelings can I continue to live a freer and happier life.

    Thanks for the great article.

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