Email Interruptions as Avoidance Mechanism for Cognitive Dissonance

September 20, 2007 at 12:27 pm | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 5 Comments

I’m going to play amateur psychologist today.  It’s a hat I usually wear only when trying to rationalize astonishingly poor service in a restaurant or while traveling, but today I’ll apply it to a theory about near-addictive checking of email by information workers.  Now, this theory is not based on any research, cognitive, or process model, but it has some intuitive appeal to me.

I have noticed that I often feel the urge to check email when I feel stuck or bogged down in a long-running project I’m doing or complex piece of work.  I could rack this up to looking for a distraction to clear my head  or avoiding the unpleasantness of feeling stuck.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I think that our need to accomplish tasks – to get things done – is challenged by the increase in information work with undefined goals and processes and that email is being used like a drug to get a hit of accomplishment when one feels he is spinning his wheels. 

In amateur psychology terms, I’d say that I have a self-image of myself as someone who gets things done.  When I find myself bogged down with something where I find myself staring at the cursor I get annoyed at being stuck.  But to make that annoyance worse it is compounded by cognitive dissonance.  If Psych 101 taught me nothing else (it didn’t), it taught me that the brain does not like to face facts that go against one’s belief system.  For example, if I think I’m a valuable, no-nonsense person that gets things done, why am I now doing nothing and my task it taking longer than it should?  Am I wrong about myself and I need to re-evaluate who I am?  My brain rebels against having to process that, so switching to another realm where I can quickly plow through a handful of small things and cross them off reassures me that I can, indeed, get things done.  The endless stack of emails in the inbox provides a bottomless opportunity to reinforce a self-opinion of oneself as important, decisive, and productive.  Someone needs to hook electrodes up to some college sophomores and measure whether hitting the delete key in rapid succession on a list of emails releases endorphins.

This need is becoming more acute since, as a society, we are moving to majority of work being tacit in nature (undefined; no pre-defined process) as opposed to transformational (creating goods out of raw materials) or transactional (following strict processes).  A McKinsey study from 2006 found that 41% of all work in the US is now tacit in nature.

This is generally a good thing.  I would not want to be stuck in a transactional job where all I do is follow a defined process repeatedly until it’s time to leave.  But with tacit work there is no process defined so the list of tasks needed to complete a unit of work is not defined and is often invented along the way.  This sometimes makes completion of tasks feel like the trials of Sisyphus.  How can I feel a sense of accomplishment at each task when the process is undefined, I don’t know how many tasks there are, they are not tracked, and many tasks prove to be a useless diversion? 

Well, I’m going to stop here for now.  I’m a bit stuck on what else to say at the moment and I have a sudden urge to check email.



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  1. […] temporary trial to raise awareness of email dependence, but not a long term strategy.  I also wrote last month that I think that our need to accomplish tasks – to get things done – is challenged by the […]

  2. […] especially key as a coping mechanism.  I believe email is a common surrogate measure.  In…  I wrote that “I have noticed that I often feel the urge to check email when I feel […]

  3. […] around you just start doing, it can reflect poorly on you.  As I mentioned with my posting “Email Interruptions as Avoidance Mechanism …” there’s a bias towards getting hits of accomplishment.  Lets say you are told on Monday […]

  4. […] sense of accomplishment.  As I wrote in Email Interruptions as Avoidance Mechanism for Cognitive Dissonance, I think that our need to accomplish tasks – to get things done – is challenged by the increase […]

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