Hyperbolic discounting is another feature of how we're wired to think about rewards. Discounting is the diminishing value of rewards as they get further away in time. It's the thing that means that being offered 100 euros today is far more exciting than being offered 100 euros in ten years time. That discounting is hyperbolic means a reward that is very close gets drastically more attractive.
To see this, try thinking about whether you'd like 10 euros now or 20 euros in a year's time. If you're an impatient person maybe you'll favour the 10 euros now, if you’re patient you can maybe wait for the 20 euros in a year's time. But if we shift both rewards backwards in time by 10 years, the choice stops being ambiguous: 10 euros in ten year's time, or 20 euros in eleven year's time is an easy call. Almost everyone would go for the second option.
What this shows is that the choice of a smaller amount of money only seemed attractive because it was closer in time. Hyperbolic discounting is why people will pay money to pick up today's news, but won't even bend down to pick up yesterday's news. Immediacy creates value in our brains.
Going back to email, think of a time you didn't check your email for a week. If you're like me, you probably opened your email expecting lots of exciting news – a sum of all the excitement you experience with each individual email. But actually, a week's worth of email isn't very exciting. The interest that email generates as you see it arriving in your inbox is an illusion generated by hyperbolic discounting. Every technology has its own logic, and part of the logic of email is the speed with which it is delivered, with the new mails always pushing their way to the top of the pile. This pull is as insidious as it is intense – apparently 59% of people surveyed by AOL are so addicted to keeping track of their email that they check it in the bathroom.
This is what makes me think that the very speed of email delivery is a handicap – email delivered with a half-hour delay would be easier to judge at its true value, and so be far less distracting.
Finally, a fourth fundamental principle of human reasoning is our sense of ownership or responsibility. I've written recently about how we can be tricked into valuing something more by accidents of fate that put that thing in our possession. Email is prey to this bias: once something is there, it is natural to decide that it deserves our consideration, it is somehow our responsibility to read and respond.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the group email and the avalanche of replies that invariably ensues. Strike back by reminding yourself that not all email has to be replied to, that lots of issues will be – and should be – dealt with by other people. Ask yourself: "If I didn't have this information in my inbox, would I go out looking for it?" Most of the time the answer is probably "no", and that's a sign that someone else is controlling your attention.
Unless you diligently maintain the boundaries of exactly what you are responsible for, email becomes a system for letting other people control your time. So delete that email and move on!