For some of the online world’s compulsions, we have only ourselves to blame. Think about email: In the past few years, we’ve arrived at an equilibrium point where everyone expects everyone else to be on email all the time. For most people, this isn’t a good thing. One of my friends, the business analytics expert Ken Rona, has shown that charging a nominal amount (5 cents per message) for email caused people to think more carefully about what they were writing and ultimately increased productivity in a significant way. But as with any other social norm, it’s now hard for individuals to opt out. A while ago, I tried to read email only in the evenings, but pretty soon I found myself showing up for meetings that had been canceled 15 minutes beforehand.
How did we get to this point? Most of the emails we receive are useless to us, but paradoxically, that fact may be partly to blame for our feeling compelled to read them. In animal experiments, famed psychologist B. F. Skinner and his colleague C. B. Ferster showed that random reinforcement is far better than regular reinforcement in modifying behaviour. If a pigeon gets food every 100th time it presses a button, it will usually keep pressing. But if the reward comes randomly—sometimes after 50 presses and sometimes after 150—the pigeon will press with much more vigour, even after the rewards are removed entirely. Email does something similar. From time to time we get a very important message, so when we see new mail waiting, we are compelled to read it in the hope it might be something wonderful, even though it usually winds up being unimportant.
We also let ourselves be gamed every day by one of the oldest technologies of all: the calendar. Because it displays our nonscheduled time as empty space, our calendar apps encourage us to pack our days with events. Think how differently we’d interact with our calendars if the default was for time slots not to be empty—if, instead, they were pre-populated with tasks like thinking, writing, and planning. We’d be far less likely to neglect the opportunity costs: Every time we accept an obligation, it would be clear that we are giving something up.
Another calendar problem is related to what behavioural economists Gal Zauberman and John Lynch call “resource slack.” Their research has shown that when people estimate future time and money, we are overly optimistic about how much flexibility (slack) we’ll have. But we’re even more unrealistic about time than money. Lynch, who was my dissertation adviser, used to give me this advice: When someone asks you to do something in a year, ask yourself whether you’d accept if it were happening in the next two weeks. Based on our calendar, it looks as if we will have nothing do a year from now. In reality, though, our typical week next year will look a lot like this week.
But until my calendar starts to simulate that, I’ll likely keep surrendering my days to stuff I never should have scheduled.
Dan Ariely (@danariely) is a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University. He is the author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality.