What are you?

"We are what we repeatedly do." – Aristotle

Ben Worthen of the Biz Tech Blog in the Wall Street Journal published a clever post on an experiment to break his own email addiction. The results are both pathetic and funny, in a "isn't it funny how Milhouse always gets beaten up by Jimbo and Nelson and snubbed by Lisa" kind of way.

Worthen avoided setting heroic goals (checking emails only once a day, say), and opted for something much more modest:

We thought it would be a worthy experiential-journalism project to record how often we checked our email and to share the results with all of you. We planned to do this for a day. We called off the experiment after an hour. The reason: We’d already checked email 12 times, often for no reason at all.

Despite his uncontrollable (and unconscious) need to wallow in the inbox, Worthen retained enough journalistic objectivity to note two bad habits:

1) We had a tendency to check our email in the middle of phone calls; and 2) Sometimes we checked email without even thinking about it – our fingers moved the mouse over to our inbox before we knew what we were doing. It’s like we’ve been conditioned Pavlov-dog style to expect important news to drop into our inbox. So we just keep checking.

So this is what it's come to: we unconsciously undermine our ability to get anything of value done by continually interrupting our own work. Apparently, the 150 emails we get per day — about one every three minutes — don't constitute enough of an interruption for us. No, we're so desperate for our email fix (Maybe I've won the big contract! Maybe that girl will go out with me! Maybe I can get discount Viagra! Maybe a Nigerian prince has a fortune to share with me!) that we check even more frequently than new email arrives.

Not that the content of the email actually matters, of course. It's the simple act of checking that eases the craving:

11:45: Just checked email while talking to a co-worker. We don’t think he knows. By the way, we’re just checking to see who these messages are from again. We’re not reading them.

11:48: Just read them. One lesson from all of this: From now on, we won’t check our inbox unless we have time to read the messages that are there.

11:50: Or not. We opened our inbox without thinking again. Honestly, we didn’t want to.

If you're in the same boat as Worthen, try this: turn off your email. Even for just a little while. And get some real work done. Become more than an email junkie.

You might find that Aristotle was right: excellence is not an act, but a habit.

One thought on “What are you?

  1. Seems that simply measuring something like # times email checked can lead to new behaviors (via insight).

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