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If you look closely at anything that you try to keep clean—like an email inbox, a product backlog, or a dishwasher—you’ll notice that they trend towards one of two states: clean and messy. They trend this way because both of those states are self-reinforcing.
Clean inboxes stay clean, because it’s easy to keep a clean inbox clean. When something comes in, you generally want to look at it and deal with it right away. It’s easy to do, because it’s already 99% clean, and getting to 100% is satisfying and only takes a second. It’s like skiing downhill, it’s just the natural thing to do.
Messy inboxes stay messy for the same reason. When something comes in the last thing you want to do is deal with it, even looking at your inbox reminds you of what a failure you are, etc. And you never have time to get started on the pile, because it’s in such bad shape you know it will take you forever, so you tend to not just get started. In that state, avoiding your inbox is the natural thing to do.
Why? Well, for me, I have an aversion to piles. Anything with a pile on it is easier to leave until tomorrow than it is to unpack, categorize, and face. I have pile avoidance—a classic reaction to shame.
This realization was a big unlock for me, because keeping my inbox consistently clean has been a real bugaboo historically. But I realized it’s only hard sometimes—when my pile avoidance is activated. The rest of the time it’s easy.
The implication here is that if I want to keep my inbox clean, there’s actually only a small number of times I need to intervene. What I really need to do is catch my inbox right when it’s about to turn into a gigantic, terrible, shameful pile. If I can catch it there, it’s easy to keep it clean the rest of the time.
What are those times for me?
- When someone needs something from me that takes a lot of work, a lot of thinking, or that I don’t want to give.
- When I need to tell someone something that they’re not going to want to hear.
- When something else is going on in my life, and I can’t check my email for a few days.
That’s basically it. I think most of the people who say they are good at email are just really fairly emotionally even about points one and two. They’re cool with a one line email letting someone down, when I might agonize over it for weeks. So they avoid piles automatically.
Unfortunately, I am not like this. So, what to do?
Once I framed the problem that way it was pretty easy to come up with lots of different potential solutions. The one I landed on is this.
The whole reason things are piling up in the first place is that it’s a huge emotional burden for me to do certain kinds of email. Because the perceived cost of sending the email is greater than the perceived cost of avoiding it, I’m going to avoid it—and my entire inbox—until it becomes a pile.
An easy fix for this is to increase the social cost on the other side of the equation. If I can also make it more socially costly to avoid the email than it is to do it, then I’ll never have a pile in the first place.
So here’s what I do: I have an email babysitter.
A few times a week I have my virtual assistant set up time on my calendar to do email. At the beginning she messages me to ask how many emails I have in my inbox, and how many I want to do. At the end she checks in with me to see how much I got done.
It’s just embarrassing enough for me to avoid my email during this time that it incentivizes me to power through my emails (even the hard ones.) Because I have dedicated time for this a few times a week, I never have piles of emails that I don’t want to see. Because of that I don’t avoid my inbox, and I’m in there a few times a day taking care of stuff.
It all works!
Now, this might seem like a very expensive way to keep your inbox clean. To be sure, a VA isn’t cheap. But it actually doesn’t take up much of her time, and I think it would be pretty easy to achieve for free with a friend or a partner who wants to do the same thing.
It’s also worth noting, this is only one potential workable solution. Another great way to change this equation would be for me to feel less shame about telling people things they might not want to hear—if that was easy for me, I might not need a babysitter. But there’s plenty of others out there.
Have you figured out a way to deal with your pile avoidance? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks to our Sponsor: Flatfile
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