Do You Have a Polling Addiction?

By daniel - Posted on 08 September 2009

Digital Distractions

Here's a visualization of some of the digital distractions we have to deal with by David McCandless at Information Is Beautiful.

My name is Daniel and I'm a polling addict. Anyone who works on a computer connected to the internet knows what I'm talking about. It's those compulsive visits to the likes of Craigslist, eBay, and even services like Google Analytics to see if there's been any change. We're waiting for new job postings or new bids or a slew of new visits from a referring website. Each of these tools definitely has its use but we polling addicts check on them with pointless frequency.

Identifying the Pattern

Targets of polling addiction have some pretty specific characteristics.

  • Potential for change. Even a miniscule possibility that the price will change on your watched product or some one will comment on your Flickr photo could be enough.
  • No notifications. If you're already receiving notifications for the website or service, you probably won't feel compelled to check it manually by visiting the website. If the notifications are too infrequent (e.g., weekly) this might not apply.
  • Easy access. The barrier to entry has to be pretty low for the behaviour to become compulsive. If you need to login with a massive password everytime you check for an update you'll be less likely to poll it.
  • Relatively infrequent change. If the status of your polling target changes too often, the need to check up on it falls off. However, in some cases, you just refine the criteria that you're checking for in the service so that it occurs less frequently.

There are basically two situations when this behavior kicks in. When you're procrastinating from some big task and when you're bored. Procrastinating isn't so bad because visiting a website to see if anything's changed doesn't take long. However, you might poll the same websites several times while milking other distractions before getting down to business.

The worst trigger for polling addiction is short-term boredom. Whenever you have to wait a few seconds for a code compile or a slow website you might "just quickly check" whether your Flickr stats have changed.

I know that when I see a progress bar for more than a second I impulsively switch tabs or windows to continue with another task. Sometimes, though, it means I'll go check couch prices on Craigslist and spend much more time there than it took for the progress bar to finish.

So why do we do this? It's your basic reward system. If there is a change, that is, if a new couch has appeared or a new comment or a new bid, then we get a reward. Part of that reward comes from the novelty of the new item but it can also be tied to getting attention from others or even financial/success-related.

Countering Polling Addiction

The problem with polling addiction is that, in the long run, a lot of time gets wasted and it adds to distractions from work. Also, research shows that doing too much multi-tasking makes us worse at task-switching.

So here are a few ideas for controlling the compulsive website-visiting:

  • Make the websites harder to access. By increasing the barrier to access, you reduce the likelihood that you'll try to visit the website. You can do this by deleting bookmarks and forcing yourself to type in the URL. You could also use a Greasemonkey script to prevent you from accessing the website during specific time periods.
  • Get notifications. If there's a way to get automatic email notifications from the service, you can rely on those instead of visiting the site manually. Just make sure the frequency of these notifications is limited so you don't end up with another distraction.
  • Exercise some self-control. Easier said than done, but realizing when you're about to check Craigslist for the third time in a day and building the habit of going back to what you were doing before is really the best way to deal with the distraction.