Why do we fritter away our days responding to email, and then kick ourselves for not working on our most important creative projects? It turns out that there are actually some pretty good reasons. Number one among them is that responding to email gives us a sense of progress. (And progress is a huge motivator for creatives.)

Here’s behavioural economist Dan Ariely in our new 99U book:

First, people have a really bad habit of coming in and checking e-mail first thing in the morning. And for many people, the morning is the most productive time. E-mail is very, very tempting, so they basically sacrifice their productive time for e-mail.

The second issue is that in doing things, we like to feel that we’re making progress. So if you get to erase ten e-mails from your inbox, you feel like you have achieved something. But if you think carefully about it, it’s not clear that you’re going to get something out of it.

The next thing working against us is the calendar. It has a tendency to represent tasks that can fit in thirty-minute or one-hour blocks. And tasks that take, say, fifty hours—which could be how long it takes you to complete a meaningful creative task—don’t naturally get represented in that calendar.

Then there’s opportunity cost. With money, opportunity cost is the fact that every time you spend three dollars on a latte, you’re not going to spend it on something else. With time, there is also an opportunity cost—but it’s often even harder to understand.

Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.

So what then is the solution? According to Ariely, it’s all about creating more tangible progress markers for our creative projects—journaling or blogging about our daily progress, saving versions of our work, and so forth.

You can find the complete interview, as well as contributions from Gretchen Rubin, Scott Belsky, Stefan Sagmeister and more, in Manage Your Day-to-Day, the new book from 99U.

  • email is dead

    More straw men in this article than scarecrows in Iowa.

  • Rafael Hernampérez

    great! I usually disconnect from my email in order to be more productive. I reserve two or three blocks or 30 minutes in my agenda, in which I’m dedicated, in exclusive, to review, process, organize and execute my email.

  • Antone

    This article nailed it – and we wonder why we feel like we get nothing done at the end of the day. I just read a book from 99U called “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind” – it had some good tips from multiple authors on how to build a quality routine into your day as well as the pitfalls of what take away from our productivity. We are certainly busier people, but not necessarily more productive people.

  • Lori Biddle

    This is why I find email so tempting – I start out answering a couple and off I go to look at someone’s website or blog… Thanks!

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