Put Your Inbox in the Upstairs Bathroom
Published on March 22, 2012 by Jesse Storimer
My house has two bathrooms.
One is upstairs and one is downstairs. In order to understand the story you need to know that the bedroom and main bathroom are upstairs. Downstairs is just a half bath, as they say. I work from home and spend most of my day downstairs. When I have to use the bathroom, I use the downstairs one; no surprise there.
A few weeks ago a peculiar thing happened: my wife took our toothbrushes, which usually reside in the upstairs bathroom, and put them in the downstairs bathroom. I can usually manage to brush my teeth twice a day: once in the morning after I get up and once at night before I go to bed. I'd really like to brush my teeth after every meal. I'm currently eating tons of fresh fruit and vegetables which really takes its toll on teeth, so I really should be brushing several times per day.
Alas, when the toothbrush is upstairs it's out of sight and out of mind. As such, I rarely venture upstairs in the middle of the day simply to brush my teeth and return downstairs.
However, when my toothbrush was brought downstairs I found myself brushing my teeth far more often. I was reminded of its presence every time I went to the bathroom and found it far easier to take an extra few minutes to brush my teeth several times per day.
So going forward I'm going to keep my toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom. My email inbox, however, will be moved to the upstairs bathroom.
For the longest time I kept my inbox in the downstairs bathroom. I'll stop mincing words and say that I checked my inbox too often. Why is this a problem? Checking email is a really great way for me to break my concentration, reduce my motivation, and totally switch contexts.
So why was I checking so often? There are certainly psychological factors, wanting to respond quickly to coworkers, procrastination, but one of the biggest factors was that checking my inbox was just too plain easy.
I was using a nice GUI email client. It wanted to send me growl notifications whenever I got a new message and show me how many unread messages I had on its Dock icon. Needless to say, I turned off these features. However, this made no difference, it was still too easy to check. Anytime I was programming I could quickly press Cmd-Tab and just have a peek at my inbox. This quickly became a reflex action. I was checking my inbox every minute or so as I waited for a test run. It was literally optimized down to a sub-second operation.
So how did I remedy this? I now read my email using mutt(1).
There are a few things that make this better. The main thing is when I want to check my inbox I perform the following steps:
- Open a new terminal session.
- Launch mutt.
- Watch in detail as mutt makes the initial connection, authenticates, and pulls down new messages.
- Read email.
- Close mutt.
I've found this technique very effective in clobbering my addiction to checking my inbox. Why is it so effective? My mail is never just sitting there waiting for me. If I want to check my inbox it takes about 15 seconds of my time from having the idea to seeing my new mail. Believe it or not, this is often enough to prevent me from even getting started with checking my inbox. A sub-second operation became a 15-second operation.
My email inbox used to be even closer than the downstairs bathroom. It was akin to keeping my toothbrush proppped up on my shoulder in case I felt like I had an extra few seconds to brush my teeth. Now my inbox is at a safe distance. About 15 seconds away. About the same distance as my upstairs bathroom.