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Back to Basics: Your Inbox

Back to Basics: Your Inbox

Your Inbox

    This is the first post in an ongoing series I’m calling “back to Basics”, a “refresher course” in personal productivity. For people just starting to grapple with issues of productivity, it will serve as an introduction to the basic concepts that underlie much of what we write here at Lifehack. For more advanced readers, it will serve as a reminder of what you thought you were setting out to do before you started fiddling with your system.

    I’m not sure how long the series will be – I intend to keep going until a) I run out of topics to cover, or b) people start asking me to stop. :-)

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    Your Inbox

    We start, then, where most productivity systems start: your inbox. By “inbox”, I don’t necessarily mean one of those plastic or wooden trays you set on your desk and pile everything into; that’s one kind of inbox, but not the only kind. Basically, an inbox is any place where you collect inputs into your life for later processing, whether those inputs are information, correspondence, notes, unfinished work, things you intend to look at later, or whatever.

    An inbox, then, can be a tray in your office, a table by your front door, a notebook you carry in your purse or pocket, or a pocket in your shoulder bag. We also have “virtual” inboxes: your email program, your RSS reader, note-organizing apps like Evernote, even a text or word processing file you keep open on your desktop. And don’t forget your computer monitor – if you’re one of those people who covers their monitor with post-its, that, too, is an inbox.

    The Fewer, the Better

    As a general rule, the fewer inboxes you have, the better. Fewer inboxes means less places where important material can escape your notice, and also less time to process everything you need out of them.

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    As a practical matter, your inboxes should be treated as end-points, with all your various inputs funneling towards them. As I said, this assures that everything eventually gets put in a place where you’re going to pay some attention to it.

    With more and more of us using online web applications, it’s becoming quite easy to make sure your digital inputs end up in a single place. Most services will allow you to send things easily to your email, and you can set up rules to automatically forward stuff where it needs to end up, thus automating some of the processing of your inbox. For example, you could have all emails with attachments forwarded automatically to your Google Docs account so you can access them and even edit them from just about anywhere (that’s assuming you don’t regularly receive documents whose value you need to ascertain before deciding what you need to do with it).

    For physical inputs, make sure everyone knows where to put things that they want you to see and do something about – mail, documents to review, research material, whatever. At work, this tends not to be so difficult; at home it will be another story! You’ll help make sure that your chosen inbox is seen as a place to put things that need action if you regularly process it’s contents so that it doesn’t become a place where inputs go to be forgotten.

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    And make sure you set an example by using your inbox yourself! When you’re away from your desk or from home, keep a notebook or pack of index cards with you and jot notes, appointments, numbers, etc. down as they come to you. When you get to your inbox, drop it in and process it according to your normal schedule. If you don’t make good use of your inbox, nobody else will.

    An Inbox Alone Isn’t Productive

    It’s important that your inboxes not be treated as final destinations! An inbox is only useful as a place to collect everything that’s important, to get it out of your head so that you can do something with it. Inboxes that just keep filling up are worse than useless; not only do they not help you do the things that are important enough to you to end up in your inbox, but they soon overflow and leave you in search of a new inbox to fill with all your new important stuff. All the while you get further and further behind…

    Set up an inbox-cleaning routine that fits your workstyle and the rate at which it fills. While you don’t want to let it fill to overflowing, you also don’t want to feel compelled to process everything the moment it hits your inbox. The point of your inbox is to help you manage your inputs, not to allow your inputs to manage you!

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    Next Time: Processing Your Inbox

    In the next “Back to Basics” post, we’ll look at ways of processing the material that ends up in your inboxes. While it might take some effort and discipline to make sure your inboxes are used effectively, maintaining an inbox is a largely passive affair: stuff keeps filling your inbox whether you do anything or not. Processing is the first part of doing, where you start making active decisions about what to do with each item in your inbox.

    Do you have any useful tips to help your fellow readers channel all their inputs into one place? Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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