Why Emails are as Tempting as Marshmallows

Written by KB Published in

Thought Leader Blog

Distraction via email is the prime culprit of low productivity in the workplace. Our recent research* into distraction led us to explore why emails are a temptation too hard to resist. You may be familiar with the famous ‘marshmallow experiment’ which was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s; four-year-olds were given a marshmallow, but told that if they waited seven or eight minutes, they could have two marshmallows – not just the one.

Fourteen years later, when they were tracked down, those kids who waited to receive the two marshmallows turned out to be better learners, more popular, and still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. That ability to delay gratification hinges on a cognitive skill: concentrating on the good feelings that will come from achieving a goal and in doing so, ignoring tempting distractions.

How does this relate to workplace emails? Throughout the course of a day the constant challenge to get anything done amongst the myriad of distractions can be exhausting. Email provides an instant opportunity to feel good about making progress on a subject, ticking something quickly off ‘the list’ or feeling important or needed in terms of making a decision or helping someone else. Alternatively, checking emails releases any negative feelings or anxiety that build up as when not checking emails. Either way there is an instant positive emotion or release of a negative one – a better outcome. The paradox is that this short term ‘good feeling’ of 1 email (marshmallow) will be the very thing that drives the frustration felt later of not getting anything done (2 marshmallows) throughout the work day. Popular workflow management practises recommend checking emails twice a day only. Whilst many of us know that this would definitely enhance productive and lead to a better feeling at the end of the day very few practice this strategy. In fact, last week I was sharing the findings of our recent research* on workplace productivity with a group of young professional women and not one person in the room (of 40) said that they managed email in this manner. This admission along with our research into distraction and workplace productivity revealed two very clear segments of respondents: The first, a small group we coined the Early Adapters. This group are able to disregard distractions and stay focused on task. They can then enjoy the rewards of 2 marshmallows. The second much larger group coined the Constrained Defeatists were not able to disregard distractions and succumbed to the pressure or instant gratification in the form or progress or feelings of control and importance. The marshmallow theory postulates that a particular ‘self-control’ trait or attribute (i.e. the ability to act or 'not act' through conscious thought in a single moment) is present in some people and absent in others.

The key difference with the segments as identified in our study was that the Early Adapters not only had self-control but were also able to self-regulate; i.e. habitualise a process so that it no longer requires a decision to behave in a certain way. So in practice – an Early Adapter will either ignore their email alerts to get on with the current task, or turn off their email for allocated stretches of time as a daily practice to allow them to be more productive. The Constrained Defeatists are eating the marshmallow now to feel good and make progress – checking or completing emails as they enter their in-box - but sacrificing the bigger reward of what could be achieved throughout the course of the day due to these constant distractions.

Next time you go to check your emails think about whether it is a single marshmallow moment and reflect on whether that moment might be worth holding out on for the bigger, double marshmallow reward!



Thought Leader, Kate Boorer is an employee engagement and performance expert. 

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