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Compulsively Checking E-mail and Going to Bed Late: Where Unintentional Habits Come From


You may be in charge of how often you check your e-mail: it may be that you can stay away from it for days at a time, that you don’t check it on vacation, and that if you’re at a computer doing something else, you never look at it every five minutes just to see whether something new has shown up. Many of us, however, are in a different boat–if not with e-mail, then regularly going to bed later than intended (even if the last wakeful hour of the day was spent just marking time), or with watching the news every night, or with having a cup of tea every afternoon at four (I’m not looking at you, The United Kingdom; I’m just saying).

Whether we think of these kinds of behaviors as compulsions, bad habits, or routine, they have a few things in common: they seem to appear by themselves without our ever choosing them; they are often counter-productive (well, maybe not the tea); and they’re not easy to get rid of.

But these habits aren’t such a mystery, because we acquire habits in the same way whether they help us or hurt us, whether they’re desired or accidental: we repeat a behavior over and over for a reason until we naturally start doing it automatically even when we don’t have a reason.

Constantly checking e-mail is a good example: this kind of habit can easily develop when there’s important information coming through e-mail that you’re eager to see. I know that every time I’ve had a writing success (when I won the Writers of the Future contest, when my book Talk the Talk sold, etc.) or especially was hoping for a writing success (waiting for a response on a short story, waiting to hear back from a publisher about a novel) I’ve tended to check my e-mail over and over on the off chance that some time in the last five minutes, the hoped-for news had come: the book had sold, the contest was won, the agent is excited about working with me. And having a number of kinds of things like that over the years, I did this repeated checking long enough, often enough, and consistently enough that now for me, checking my e-mail is a little bit like eating: if I go too long without doing it, I start feeling antsy.

The exact same process applies to staying up late at night, or playing video games when you arrive home from work or school, or watching the news every evening regardless of whether it’s really making your life better to do so: any period where you have a powerful reason to do the thing over and over can birth a long-term habit that doesn’t need a reason. The same steps even apply to addiction in some ways, although there are also physiological factors when we’re talking about substance abuse.

Some of these (non-substance abuse) habits are neutral or helpful, others not so much. If you want to ditch a habit you never meant to pick up in the first place, the process is simple in a sense, though it takes attention, effort, and thought: you interrupt the repeated behavior long enough to weaken the habit. In order to do this, it’s helpful to find some non-habit-forming or constructive alternative, because it’s difficult not to do something you’re used to, but much easier to do something else–even if you’re not used to the something else. This is why people who are trying to quit cigarettes chew gum and why people who are trying to quit alcohol drink coffee at AA meetings.

As to whether constantly checking e-mail is one of the bad habits or one of the neutral ones–well, I would answer that, but I have to go check my e-mail.

Photo by CarbonNYC

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