use the right reward to effortlessly create habits

In Search of Inbox Zero

You should see my gmail. I’ve got about ten different email addresses, between different organizations I belong to, different sites I manage, and just holdovers from past businesses. Yet my inbox is pristine and clear, with nary an unattended message there.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a point when I had about 1700 unread messages in my account. The “read” ones were just sitting down there below, a mishmash of junk mail, newsletters and “updates” that I never got around to. If I was lucky (or rather, if my correspondent was lucky) I’d get back to them or act on whatever was needed in a sort-of timely manner. But for the most part, gmail became the Junk Drawer of Infinite Space – that thing that you keep saying you’ll get to on your day off, but that always seems to look just too big to tackle so you put it off, and of course still toss random objects in just in case you need them later.

No longer! Now I have achieved that state of zen that Merlin Mann coined “Inbox Zero“. It’s a wondrous place, where you don’t worry about missing emails or replying to them because they have been dealt with. And I didn’t get there through any of the videos, articles, or links, so don’t feel bad if you don’t look at that link. I tried them all – the systematic checks, folders highlighted, to-do lists, I tried it all. Nothing worked. Every time I tried to instill some kind of practice of email discipline it would fall apart within a day or two. I simply felt resigned to it.

But I’ve been at inbox zero every day for over a week. Want to know why? Want to know what was the secret that finally enabled me to almost effortlessly keep up this practice?

It was the picture on my Mailbox.

Warning: Product Endorsement Ahead

I heard about the iPhone app “Mailbox” during some productivity pr0n surfing over at lifehacker. It was at first a bit annoying – aside from it being labeled as “the best” (something I tend to be skeptical about when it comes to apps) it actually had a waiting list before you could actually download the free app. To this day I don’t know if that was publicity or an actual structured roll-out, making sure they could support the demand…but I do know it was about a week or so after attempting to download it that I actually got it on my iPhone.

Even then, I didn’t quite get it. Sure, there were neat little slidey methods for filing, deleting, or procrastinating (er, sorry, delegating) emails. But it didn’t really seem that big a deal. I still had hundreds of emails stacking up, because I just occasionally looked at it.

Then I had a long bus ride, and idly worked my way through, email by email. My thumb flicked left, my thumb flicked right, gradually the emails were filed or replied to or discarded…and then suddenly my screen looked like this:

Think for a moment how comforting those three words are to a workaholic.
Think for a moment how comforting those three words are to a workaholic.

and if you tap on that tantalizing outline of an envelope? You get a picture:

photo 2And that’s just today’s picture. There’s a different one every day – which means if you don’t clear out your inbox at least once a day, you miss the image.

The Killer Carrot

That’s it. That’s the killer app that got me to InBox Zero. For some reason, there is immense satisfaction for me every day in seeing the picture. It is the right reward on the basic, visceral level and it has provided the motivation that all the other systems couldn’t. That simple little image, clicking through to a pretty image of nature, works like a kind of daily advent calendar with some mental chocolate behind the tiny door.

So if you’re having trouble with a practice, can I recommend you work on finding that killer carrot – the right reward that actually works for you. It may take some trial and error – I didn’t know that the little image would be the thing that would turn me into an email ninja. But there it is.

What do you think your killer carrot looks like?

Speaking of carrots, many thanks to those of you who have been helping with the alpha test of Tipnotic. Feel like joining in? Feel free to click the little “TIP” icon below or to the right and help keep this blog rolling along!


2 thoughts on “use the right reward to effortlessly create habits”

  1. After years of unread emails in the double digits, I got down to 2 in my primary gmail account last week. And then zero this week!

    Getting there required me taking the time to delegate. I finally sent out a few emails and posted some solicitations on Facebook. I found a kind soul to take over a small position of responsibility that had been clogging my email arteries for 3 years.

    Taking time to make time. I too often forget how that works.

    Man, zero unread emails is a thing of beauty.

    My carrot is not crunchy, it sounds like ahhhhh.

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