Wrestling with intents – Why you want to check your email right now

I was tying my shoelaces, getting ready to go out and buy some food, when I realized I haven’t charged my mp3 player in a while. I looked up, and on the table was my laptop and, sticking out at places beneath the papers, my headphones’ cable, to which my player is attached.

“I’ll plug it in when I get back”, I first thought.

“But wait, why don’t I plug it in now?”

“Nah, I’ll do it later. Besides, I need to find the cable for charging it.”

“Wait, it’s in the bag behind me. If I could just turn around…”

“No, no, don’t turn around. Look, you said you were going shopping right now, so why don’t you just charge it when you get back?”

And that’s when it hit me. There really was no reason not to plug in my mp3 player right now – in fact, plugging it in right now would mean it would charge faster. But the strength of the simple intent of “you said you were going shopping right now” was strong enough to demand that I leave right now.

I would often become aware of this paradox, but for some reason now I could see it in all its hollowness. We so easily fall into the trap of telling stories to ourselves, explaining why something we intended should not be interrupted, or, perhaps even more often, why something which should be done should be interrupted.

While typing this post, I think I alt-tabbed to my web browser at least 3 or 4 times. There, I did it again right now. As I’m writing this, I’m also thinking about checking my email or Facebook again, or, should I say, I’m thinking about not checking it –resisting the urge which seems to become stronger simply by being mentioned.

I just alt-tabbed again. Dammit.

But I quickly switch back to Word, because now I’m thinking clearly about it, and I’m also telling myself that I should focus on this  post and that there’s no real reason why I should check my email at this very instant. This seems to help.

I can recall many occasions where just seeing something mentioned was enough to prompt me into unnecessary action. For instance, seeing a name which reminds me of some friend would make me check his/her Facebook account, even though, just moments ago, I had absolutely no wish to do so. Remembering that I have some nuts left in the kitchen would suddenly make me want to snack on them.

They say that your environment can influence a lot how you behave, and I absolutely agree. However, I think that the environment in your head is constantly influencing you tremendously, often without the backup of any external cravings and intents.

The solution, like most things, requires practice and patience and failing a lot. The first important step is becoming aware of it; making a sort of a trigger in your head that will warn you when you are about to interrupt something you shouldn’t, or vice-versa. In fact, just pausing to think seems to help the most – sizing up the intents in your head, you can analyze them, see why they appeared and how justified they are, and then you can choose which one to follow.

Some things are easy – I plugged in my mp3 player before going shopping. Some, though, are tougher, and I think this is because they have deeper reasons to be there. My urge to alt-tab, for instance, is now weaker – though it’s still there, I haven’t done it since that ‘dammit’. Still, I know that this urge doesn’t need to be invoked by something external – it happens often enough to indicate that I should look deeper into why it appears, that just ignoring it is not the whole solution.

I also haven’t snacked on the nuts which are right behind me. However, when I finish this article I will pack them and put them somewhere away. As I said, this takes practice.

No, in fact, I’ll pack the nuts away right now.

There. That wasn’t that hard.

Incidentally, did you (want to) check your email when you saw the headline of this post?


8 Comments to “Wrestling with intents – Why you want to check your email right now”

  1. Actually, no 🙂 , but only because I was so intrigued by that introduction of yours (on the fb page) that I had to read the entire thing straight away. And if you hadn’t mentioned it again, at the end of the text, I wouldn’t have done it, since I forgot all about it. But now I just have to check it!
    After all, it’s been six hours since I last did it. 😀

  2. While we all have this problem, I found that it particulary bugs me when it appears in the middle of studying. But the interesting thing is, it bugs me only after I’ve, for example, checked my mail. It didn’t take long to realise that reason for the guilt: sloth. Something distracts me, and instead of refocusing on studying, I embrace the distraction, using it as an excuse before myself and my conscience to evade work. Could this mechanism be responsible for other instances of the phenomenon you described? I don’t know, I haven’t thinked about it till now. 🙂

  3. Don’t try smoking, ever…

  4. @Jelena
    Heheh. Btw, shouldn’t you be checking your email account right now, huh? Huh? Why don’t you? 😛

    You’re right, sloth is a big part of it – though these impulses seem to even creep into some of the things that I like and are important to me, such as writing a project proposal (the writing itself isn’t, to put it lightly, the most fun of things, but overall it’s still very important to me). As I said, focus has to be practiced, it’s a matter of discipline.

    And yes, there are other places where this mechanism does its damage. I’ll explore them in future posts, and you’re invited to do the same 🙂


    You know I won’t 😉

  5. I am so “lost in space” and prone to distraction, I HAVE to do something immediately, as soon as I think of it – otherwise I’l forget it…

    So, in the above mentioned MP3 player case (although I use creative muvo which is AAA batery charged, thankyeeverymuch) I would have had to immediately charge it, otherwise I will completely forget it

    Makes me think how fucked I will be when I get really old 🙂

  6. Actually, just today, I’ve attempted to write an article which relates to this very subject (the idea seems solid, but the writing…oh, she works, oh) :-).
    It concerns the idea of grit, sticking to one thing with iron determination. Of course, the first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t even stick with one topic while I was writing :-p.

    But then it struck me! If my parent, or a similar authority figure came in and said: “Write that article or no supper” (or something) I would’ve probably have it done by now! It was then that I defined the problem we as cognitively independent people face:

    – We trust ourselves. We believe in ourselves. What we must learn is how to OBEY ourselves! Make US our own taskmasters. That way, a simple command like “Don’t alt+tab that!” will feel more like an impulse than a debate! This might seem obvious, but try it! Imagine an authority figure coming in and giving you an order. Then, imagine giving yourself an order. Can you feel the difference? Don’t you jump to debate yourself over some things you would just DO if there was a foreign control influence there?

    But as you wrote, that too requires a lot of practice :-).

  7. @Bill

    Heh, yes, external (especially parental) authority can be very powerful. You raise a very interesting possibility of actually working on that internal voice of authority. The first step though would still be to know what you really want or why you should be doing whatever it is you want/have to do – then that voice is something which pushes you through the distractions. Otherwise, you end up forcing yourself to do things which have no clear purpose/meaning, and that takes way too much additional energy.

  8. maybe I’m an outsider bcs I don’t have anything interesting in my email..and 3 days ago 20+ mailes waited 4 me… most of them free newspapers 🙂

    but like distractions came suddenly the same thing happened with some strike of creative thoughts… look @ my status on fb 😀

    there is only one explanation for this subject “what to do…really..” -character made of steel 😀
    p.s. u r nuts cuz u think of nuts behind u

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