Over the past 25 years, email has quietly usurped a massive portion of our work energy, luring us into focusing on urgent, inconsequential tasks at the expense of meaningful, long-term creative projects. According to a recent report, we currently spend a whopping 28% of our time at the office reading and responding to email.
Let’s play that out for a moment. Those numbers mean that we are voluntarily choosing to spend more than a quarter of our working lives on email. If you work 40 hours, that’s 10+ hours a week, 40+ hours a month, and 480+ hours a year. And for almost all of us, that means we are willingly choosing not to do meaningful creative work during those hours.
Sure, everybody has to deal with some email—there’s no escaping it. But almost all of us spend significantly more time emailing than is absolutely necessary. Why? It’s not as if we actually enjoy it. Almost all of the accomplished creative people I know actively hate their email. So why can’t we stop checking it?
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 ambitious creative 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 designing a groundbreaking product, coding a new 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 design iterations you churned out
- Break large projects down into weekly milestones that you can tick off so you feel a continuous sense of achievement and get those hits of completion
- Take five minutes at the end of your day to jot down a short list of 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, or pinned to the wall, as a testament to your progress.
The key is to invent “progress hacks” to make your meaningful work as addictive as email.
Adapted from the book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done by Jocelyn K. Glei, published by Public Affairs.
Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how we can make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book, Unsubscribe, is a modern guide to getting rid of email anxiety, reclaiming your focus, and spending more time on meaningful work. Her previous works include the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Previously, she was the founding editor of 99U, an organization dedicated to helping creatives make their ideas happen. She lives in Los Angeles and online at jkglei.com.
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