Next time you think about getting your inbox back to zero, stop and think – what will it achieve? And why do you even want to do that in the first place?
Welcome to the world of software design psychology, where the goal is to create applications that are so compelling you’ll be completely convinced it’s your life goal to master them.
In theory, the best applications are so convincing that using them induces a trance-like state not entirely dissimilar to classical hypnotism, psychologist Dr Aleks Krotoski told the recent Wired for Wonder event in Sydney.
“When you're in a trance you're neuro-biologically convinced about things that define rationality,” she said.
While it might appear that emptying your inbox is a rational path of action, it’s what the designers of Outlook and Gmail want you to think.
Sure, you might feel a sense of achievement when you delete that last piece of email, but have you actually achieved anything other than being distracted for hours from the stuff you really should be doing?
“The people who are designing these things want us to be compelled,” Krotoski said.
“We are convinced by the technology that emptying the inbox is what we want to do. We're convinced that the best way to interact with our friends and our families is by posting status updates and pictures on Facebook or with work colleagues by connecting on LinkedIn.
“But when you return to your desks think carefully about every activity you find yourself performing as part of your work activities. Are you doing it because it's useful and productive and it's the right thing to do for the business, or because you're fascinated by the mesmerising eyes of the designers?”
The trance that systems like email induce is a kind of “flow state”, according to Krotoski. The concept of flow is the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and can be likened to a feeling of being ‘in the zone’.
“Everybody has been in flow,” Krotoski said.
“You've gone for a run and you've pushed through those first two painful miles, you've discovered hours have passed when you're sitting there simply stringing beads or playing a piano.
“In flow, you are so fixated on what you're doing that everything else evaporates.”
The concept can be applied broadly across software development.
Game developers, for example, want gamers to get into the flow of the game so they become motivated to finish it.
The creators of e-commerce sites want shoppers to have a similar experience. Krotoski cites a 1999 Vanderbilt University study that drew links between successful websites and the flow states they tried to create for users.
“We are so deeply in a trance that we will follow the website's lead into a rabbit hole for hours, which I’m sure many of you have found yourself doing,” she said.
“We become lost to the rest of the world.”
Krotoski sees email as not dissimilar: its creators want “to get you into a flow state, into a trance, where you feel motivated to continue because your skill is matched by that challenge".
“Because remember: most people's jobs isn't to do email. In fact, the email flow state interrupts every other flow state," she said.
“Ping! I'll just answer that. Oh, five hours later I haven't done that thing I needed to do."
What it all boils down to is this: while you may be surrounded by systems that try to draw you into their flow patterns, your challenge is to resist and refocus on what it is you actually need to achieve.
Or, it’s simply a good excuse to forget inbox zero ever existed.