What You and Pavlov’s Dog Should Not Have in Common.

September 4, 2007

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You remember good old Dr. Pavlov don’t you? He was the scientist who conditioned his dog to salivate every time the dog heard a bell ring.

Dr. Pavlov achieved that by ringing a bell every time he feed the dog. In so doing, he conditioned the pooch to associate food with the ringing of the bell. After a while, he could get the dog to salivate just by ringing the bell.

Thus proving two important things: First, creatures can be conditioned through association … and Second, Dr. Pavlov had entirely too much time on his hands (but who am I to judge).

So let’s get real for a moment, and I think some of you may know where I’m going with this. A hundred years from now, will future scientists marvel at how silly we’ve become when we “salivate” ever time our email notification alerts us to new message? I sure hope not.

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The average knowledge worker receives around 60 email messages per day. With that many inbound messages, is the “Pavlov’s dog approach” to email processing really the right answer. That’s a resounding, “No”! It’s quite distracting and it’s very unproductive, yet it abounds.

So what can we do about it?

First, I strongly recommend turning off all the notifications possible (audio, flashing curser, etc.) Most email clients offer this functionality, but it might be buried deep in the preferences section. Don’t let that keep you from changing the setting though, be brave, you can do it!

Second, I recommend a “Proactive, Rhythmic” approach to email processing (i.e. check it once per hour, or three times per day, or whatever makes the most sense based on your daily volume). Even in the Silicon Valley, most corporate culture etiquette considers a response within 24 hours well within the limits of appropriate.

Third, when not processing email, minimize the application. Whatever is directly in your face is what you’re going to think about. If you are in the habit of leaving your email client up at all times, you’re going to be more distracted. You’re also going to work far more reactively which is significantly less productive.

So let’s stop acting like dogs, and turn off those bells! (Originally posted 07/03/07, reposted with audio 09/04/07)

Pavlov’s stuffed dog, no joke! He doesn’t salivate now, no matter how loudly you ring the bell.

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