In the book Unsubscribe (Public Affairs Books, 2016) 99U founding editor and productivity writer Jocelyn Glei seeks to help readers break free of email addiction, clear their inboxes more quickly, and master the art of writing emails that actually get responses from people. In the following edited excerpt, she explains how the idea of "inbox zero" became so alluring in the first place.

As Sherry Turkle put it in her book Alone Together, "We don't do email, our email does us." Even though email is one of the oldest communication technologies we use in the workplace, recent data indicates that our inbox addiction is only getting stronger.

Studies have shown that 81% of workers check their email outside of work, almost 60% monitor email on vacation, and 55% check it after 11pm on a regular basis. When we're at our desks it gets worse: the average worker checks their email 11 times an hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends almost 30% of their workweek on email. And a recent study by Adobe suggests that millennials are at least as addicted as older workers--if not more.

Part of the reason that we love email so much is that our brains are wired to seek completion. When you recognize a task as complete, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good and makes you want to repeat the behavior again to feel more pleasure.

Technologists long ago learned how to hack this quirk of the human brain--something scientists call completion bias--by inventing a handy device now known as the progress bar. They keep us glued to our computer screens as we track the status of our downloads; convince us to complete online surveys by making them seem as easy as one, two, three; and sucker us into filling out just a few more fields on our LinkedIn profiles to make them 100 percent complete.

Email taps into this urge to completion concept as well. Chipping away at our inbox gives us a sense of satisfaction precisely because the act includes such clear progress indicators. You started out with 132 email messages and now you have 50--progress! You're advancing toward that holy grail of email productivity, inbox zero, and your brain is compelling you to see the job through.

The problem is that while winnowing down your inbox gives you a strong feeling of progress, it's just that--a feeling. Because unread message counts do not obey the golden rule of progress bars: Thou shalt not move backward. Instead, your unread message count is always a moving target. While you attend to it, you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but the moment you look away, the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in.

Conversely, when it comes to completing our most important creative projects, progress often feels elusive. The first reason is that completing meaningful work takes time--often weeks, months, or even years. While you can complete a social media profile or tackle a handful of unread emails in a matter of minutes, finishing big projects frequently takes so long that we lose sight of how far we've come. There's no built-in progress bar when you're on the long journey of writing a book, coding an iPhone app, or brainstorming the right business model to raise funding.

The second reason is that the applications we use to do our most meaningful work often "hide" progress from us. When we write a shitty first draft in Word or Google Docs, we highlight it, erase it, and begin again in the same file until we get it right. By the time you get to the finished product it's as if the first, second, third, and fourth efforts never happened. Those versions have simply vanished. Similarly, we cut and paste away our progress in numerous other apps, from Photoshop to PowerPoint, on an hourly basis. And even if you are meticulous enough to maintain separate versions of your files, they're usually tucked away in a digital folder that's out of sight, out of mind.

This is the progress paradox: By dint of technology, it's easy to see our progress when we're doing relatively meaningless short-term tasks, while it's quite difficult to see our progress when we're engaged in the long-term, creative projects that will ultimately have the most impact on our lives.

Thus, staying engaged with meaningful work--and fending off the allure of email--is all about making progress visible. A few tips and tricks you can explore:

  • Post a calendar by your desk to track your daily creative output, such as the number of words you wrote, bugs you fixed, or sales calls you made.
  • Break large projects down into weekly milestones that you can tick off so you have a continuous sense of achievement.
  • Take five minutes at the end of your day to journal about your "small wins" and acknowledge the steps you made toward your goal.
  • Print out your drafts, sketches, and prototypes as they accrue and keep them in an ever-growing stack on your desk as a testament to your progress.

The key is to invent "progress hacks" to make your meaningful work as addictive as email.

Published on: Oct 5, 2016