The key to productivity

I made it to 2:36 yesterday before opening a single inbox and probably accomplished more than I had in the preceding month.

Then a post by Tomasz Tunguz sucked me in, and here I am thinking about productivity–as a distraction.

Having confronted IRC and hyper addictive email in college, before most of the society had, I became very good at ignoring it–logging out, focusing on work, and being productive.

Now I’ve regressed.

Today it seems normal to have 3 email windows open (work, personal for humans, personal for mostly computers), Slack, and of course a messaging app on a phone (or watch). I had the maturity at 21 never to do that.

I own my bad habits: today, I proved, I can escape them. But, the outside has certainly contributed, and in three specific ways.

1. Society changed its expectations. In the 1990s or early 2000s emails were closer to actual mail: replies weren’t expected instantaneously, or sometimes at all. Today, to prove you’re working at some companies, or are still a caring friend, a fast reply is almost mandatory. And by “prove” I don’t necessarily mean to other people: you might be replying to prove to yourself.

2. Companies infiltrated our inboxes. Now email in particular has become a mess of companies trying to earn, buy or steal your attention. Email used to be between people; now gmail has 3 inboxes for emails 100% dedicated to distracting you. Sales technology like SendBloom or Boomerang have only made this worse: don’t open my first email? I’ll automatically email you 6 more times.

3. Inboxes were redesigned explicitly to distract you. In 2006 Facebook was just a place for your closest friends. Today, scroll 3 inches, see an ad. Sephora is messaging people: yeah, it’s cool and new. But really, it’s a cheaper way than TV ads to buy your attention–earning it with tech and PR. LinkedIn has become the worst offender, as I go there for work, not to be distracted–and videos and other catnip for humans await in a feed of mostly drivel. Except for Tomasz Tunguz’s posts, which sucked me in this time.

A messaging service with no distraction would be a horrible business: less time spent sucking in users to show them ads. Whatsapp, arguably, is the closest thing–though for how long is anyone’s guess.

The solution, in my view, is a change in expectations. But I have no idea what the right expectations should be.

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