My sophomore year of college I lived in an old hotel that had been converted to apartments. The hallways of the Heritage Inn smelled like boiled cabbage, and my roommates and I were the only people under the age of sixty-five who lived there. Every day when I got home from class, a horde of senior citizens would be hanging out in the lobby. “The mail’s not here yet,” they’d tell me.
“It’s late today,” one of them would grumble. “It’s normally here by two o’clock.”
I’d thank them for the update then head to my apartment.
It’s a known fact that old people love the mail. At my grandfather’s senior living complex, there’s a little sign in the mailroom for the mail carrier to flip: one side says “mail’s here!” and the other: “mail isn’t here yet.” (Heritage Inn really should have invested in one of those.) It keeps everyone from needlessly checking their boxes all day long.
Speaking of needlessly checking boxes, do you know how often I check my email? I’d guess five or more times an hour. I’m no better than the old people. In fact, I’m a lot worse.
Because it’s not just my email. I also waste time checking facebook and Twitter. Thank god I don’t have Instagram or understand Snapchat — otherwise I’d probably be checking those, too.
What happens is this: I’ll be trying to write. I’ll get a little stuck on something, so I’ll take a quick break and check my email. Or I’ll write a page of my novel then have the random compulsion to scroll through facebook for a minute.
It’s gotten to be such a habit that I feel like I can’t focus on something for longer than fifteen minutes without “needing” to check email or facebook. I feel like I’m developing ADD the way I skip from one distraction to the next.
Email and facebook offer the sort of instant gratification that writing a novel does not. I can post a picture on facebook then check back in fifteen minutes to see if I’ve gotten any “likes” or comments. Or I can simply open my email inbox and new messages have appeared. Sure, most of them are junk, but there’s always the chance that there will be some good news in there – like an email from one of the agents I’m waiting to hear back from.
Basically, having email and facebook is like having an always-available slot machine at my disposal. And it doesn’t cost any money to pull the lever. It only costs time.
It might be that I really have gotten “addicted” to checking my email. It’s a classic dopamine cycle. I’m seeking a reward, and I get a little jolt of pleasure when I see messages in my inbox. But the “reward” (a bunch of junk mail) isn’t strong enough to turn off the seeking behavior, so I check my email again fifteen minutes later. (Read more about it here.)
Add to that the fact that email is unpredictable. Remember B.F. Skinner’s experiments where he conditioned mice to press levers? The mice that continued to press the levers the longest were the ones that got rewarded (with food pellets) at random intervals. I’m really no different than those mice. I don’t know when exactly I’m going to get some awesome email reward, so I just keep checking. (Read more about it here.)
As you can guess, my writing is suffering because of this. I waste a lot of time on facebook and email, but it’s not just the wasted time. In order for me to write fiction well, I should slip into the skin of my main characters and immerse myself in the world of my novel. But I can’t do that if I’m coming out of my story every fifteen minutes to check my email or look at pictures of people’s babies on facebook.
The problem has only gotten worse over the past few months as I’ve been experiencing some writer’s block. The more I struggle with writing, the more I want to “take a break” and check my email.
But not anymore! On Monday I decided I need to kick this habit. I made the following rule for myself:
NO checking email or facebook from 9 am to noon.
Nine to noon is normally when do my creative writing. (I work my various part-time jobs in the afternoon.) From now on, I will have those three hours uninterrupted by the distractions of email and facebook.
If I get stuck or if I need to take a break, I am allowed to read a book, take a walk, cook something, do laundry, etc. I’m even allowed to look something up on the Internet if I feel the need to. But I am not allowed to touch my inbox or facebook for those three sacred hours.
I’m two days into this routine. On Monday, I broke down and checked my email at 10:30 because I was expecting to hear back from a parent about whether or not I was tutoring her child at 3pm that day. I did have an email from her. I responded to it then promptly clicked out of my inbox. Could I have waited until noon to read her email and respond? Probably.
On Tuesday I made it until 11:30 before I broke down and checked my email. Sure, I had stuff I needed to respond to, but again, I probably could have waited until the afternoon.
Still, it’s improvement. I can’t expect to kick this habit immediately. And checking my email once between 9 and noon is a lot better than checking it a dozen times.
I guess I’m different from the mice after all. At least I have a little self control. And I can’t make fun of old people anymore, because I totally understand their obsession with mail.