The Rat Brain: Why Email Is So Addictive
Most of the time when you “press the lever” to check your email messages, you get something disappointing or bothersome—a communication from a frustrated client or a boss with an urgent request. But every once in awhile you press the lever and you get something exciting—an email from a long-lost friend or, if you’re really lucky, a video of goats jumping on things. And it’s those random rewards, mixed in with all the mind-numbing updates and irksome requests, that we find so addictive. They make us want to push the lever again and again and again, even when we have better things to do.
Can you make a habit of identifying your “real rewards” at work in order to avoid falling into the trap of random rewards?
The rat brain is most likely to take control when you’re feeling aimless. Steel yourself against idle email checking by making a ritual of jotting down tomorrow’s to-do list before you leave the office each night. Creating your to-do list in advance empowers you to kick off the workday with clarity and momentum. It also means you have a framework in place for the day’s priorities before you check your email, allowing you to weigh any incoming requests against what you’ve already planned to accomplish. As you craft your to-do list, remember to be realistic. Crossing everything off is your reward—and it will also reinforce the positive behavior.
The Progress Paradox: Why Inbox Zero Is Irresistible
Alas, random rewards are not the whole story. There are still more unconscious forces at work, stoking our desire to relentlessly check email—namely, an innate urge to finish an activity once we’ve started it. When you recognize a task as complete, your brain releases the neurotransmitter 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 the brain’s urge to completion, 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.
How can you create a tangible sense of progress within the context of the projects that matter most to you?
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; or 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.
The Negativity Bias: Why Our Words Betray Us
We’ve all experienced this: you draft an email, think it’s perfectly fine, and send it off only to later have the receiver take offense at a message you thought was innocuous. What Goleman’s research reveals is that the recipient is not actually being oversensitive, or at least not any more sensitive than the next guy. The fact of the matter is that everyone is extra-sensitive about tone in emails because they don’t provide the key ingredient in successful social interactions: real-time feedback. Emails lack the facial expressions, physical gestures, and vocal tone that typically shape our interpretation of what someone is saying and allow us to adjust our delivery in order to get the true meaning across. And in absence of those cues, we tend to assume the worst.
The negativity bias is real, and any tools that can help us overcome it should be considered fair game. Getting shit done is much more professional than sticking to silly principles that don’t make sense.
What if we took care to communicate not just information but also empathy in our emails?
When we take the negativity bias into account, it’s clear that emailing effectively requires us to upgrade the positivity of our language. Better outcomes will arise from being more explicit about the emotional intent of our messages and more considerate of our recipient’s feelings. Although it might not seem intuitive at first, taking the time to show empathy and encouragement in your emails can actually make you more efficient. Your clients and colleagues are much more likely to respond to your requests if they feel like you’re on their side.
The Rule of Reciprocity: Why Inbox Overload Gives Us a Guilt Complex
Sociologist Phillip Kunz proved the unexpected power of the rule of reciprocity with an unusual, DIY experiment back in the 1970s. He made up hundreds of holiday greetings, with each including either a handwritten note or a card and a picture of Kunz and his family. Then, around Christmastime he mailed the holiday cards to 600 perfect strangers.
Amazingly, a wave of replies started coming in soon afterward. Some people responded with lengthy three- to four-page letters updating him on their lives, while others sent pictures and shared news of their families. Kunz ended up receiving over 200 responses in total. Even more incredibly, he continued to receive holiday cards from many of those “strangers” for another 15 years.
Would you respond to a holiday card from a stranger? The mere notion probably sounds laughable in these days of dwindling snail mail. But what about replying to an email from a stranger? I bet you’ve already done it many times and will no doubt do so again in the near future.
What if you pictured the messages in your inbox like a stack of real, physical mail?
If you got 200+ letters a day, you would never think it was realistic to respond to all of them. Why should email be any different? Your time is limited, and you can only respond to so much. Visualizing your email as a physical object gives you a more realistic understanding of how possible—or impossible—reciprocity really is. This encourages you to make hard choices about which messages deserve a hand-crafted response, which can tolerate a templated reply, and which do not warrant a response at all. Politely responding to every single email you receive is all well and good, but not if it makes you a stranger to your own goals.
The Asker’s Advantage: Why We Can’t Just Say No
In an ask culture you are taught that asking for whatever you need is fine, with the understanding that the person you’re asking can always decline. In a guess culture you are taught that you should only ask for something if you think you are very likely to get a yes. In other words, you are trained to be attentive to subtle details and signs that will help you assess the likelihood that someone will be receptive to your proposal.
The problem emerges when askers confront guessers. Askers are inclined to just “put it out there” no matter what and leave the decision up to you: Can I crash in your studio apartment for a week? Will you code my website for free? Could you donate money to my new business venture? You get the idea.
Askers don’t mind if you say no because they were just testing the waters. But guessers have trouble believing that. They naturally assume that askers share their mindset, so they don’t think someone would ask for something if they didn’t expect to get a yes. Thus, when askers collide with guessers, their requests can often come off as brazen or presumptuous.
What if you stepped into the asker’s shoes every time you got an email that felt like an imposition?
Rather than assuming the sender expects you to say yes—and resenting the unwanted obligation—assume he thinks it’s a long shot. Reframing the situation like this makes it easier to put the ask in perspective and consider the opportunity with a relaxed attitude. Once you level the playing field between the possibility of saying yes and the possibility of saying no, it becomes easier to gracefully decline inquiries that don’t align with your priorities. Remember, email martyrdom doesn’t increase your productivity; it only increases your blood pressure. Acknowledge that you always have a choice in what you take on—and make it.
Why Email Is the Ultimate Pop Quiz
No matter how strong the allure of technology, we must not let it take away our ability to attend, to quite literally train our attention on a given task and keep it there. Because all meaningful work, all creative acts, emerge from our ability to focus the ultimate technology, the human mind, on realizing a single goal. Whether you’re having a spirited debate with a colleague, writing a thoughtful blog post, or building a small business from the ground up, all of these acts, small and large, depend upon your ability to attend, to care, to invest your time and energy into one thing to the exclusion of all others. Craft, empathy, conviction—these values are not the hallmarks of a distracted person. They are the province of the focused mind.
Email is but one—admittedly great—distraction among many we currently face, some of which already exist—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, Snapchat—and many which have yet to be invented. But email is probably the best test that exists today of your ability to marshal your attention away from unproductive distractions and onto the meaningful work that truly matters to you. If you can learn to master your email, you will have gone a long way toward solving the existential problem at the heart of technology in the Internet Age: overcoming distraction and its many discontents.