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Improve motivation and focus with small contexts

Categories: Productivity

I’ve known for years that uncategorized message queues scramble my brain. I think I’m more sensitive to this than most.

For instance, a list of unanswered texts from random groups of people (friends, work contacts, randoms, etc) feels exhausting/overwhelming. I’m not sure where to start, and it feels like the amount of effort needed to get to zero is too much. I’m tempted to avoid answering (and often do!) and move on to something else that feels more discrete that I can check off a list.

I know intellectually that if I just start answering messages I’ll get through the list, and without too much effort. However, if the amount of effort to get to inbox zero (either in iMessage/SMS, email, etc) is greater than what I wanted to spend at the moment I feel demotivated to start.

This isn’t just limited to communication and occurs in other areas of life (yard work, house projects, etc) for me, but not all (not engineering, writing, etc). I’m not sure why this is or what the connection is (if you have any ideas, drop me a message).

Small, related contexts are the solution

These mind hacks that help this inherent limitation in how I’m wired:

  1. Limit distraction. Block websites, disable notifications (this is obvious, isn’t enough, and I’ve done this for a while).
  2. Batch process message queues. Don’t handle email, texts, GitHub notifications peice meal (this is a common practice and something I’ve done for a while, also not sufficient)
  3. Group related messages together. Strictly define message queue categories; create tight context boundaries. For instance:
    1. Create multiple inboxes in Gmail for different message types (sales, networking, personal, support, etc).
    2. Move tasks out of email and into Todoist
    3. Disable email notifications in project management tools (like GitHub) and use their native notification queues.
  4. Limit queue size. Artificially limit the number of messages you can see at one time. For some reason, for me, this creates a lot more motivation to get through the list. I don’t know why, but it works.
    1. If you use Texts (which you should be, my newest productivity tool) you can create labels for different conversations and individuals and then filter your inbox during the day to only see those.
    2. In Gmail, you can limit your inbox to only display 10 messages at a time.

#4 has been the latest change for me that’s made a big difference, and is the main reason why I wrote this post. Limiting the size of any list, seems to have a strangely large impact on the "mental drag" of grinding through a large list of anything—tasks, messages, etc.