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Empty Inboxes and Fighting Lizards

Posted on April 22, 2010 by Sean

Despite stacks of paperwork and an inbox filled to capacity of new, necessary voicemails, I have accomplished the impossible.

Cracked iPhone

Today, almost a full year after I began here at Gordian Project as Customer Service Manager, I emptied my email inbox.

That’s right. Right now - at least for the next few moments, I have zero emails awaiting my reply. I worked furiously to realize this victory, through days packed-full of multi-tasking and nights spent rubbing a hole in my iPhone- forwarding, delegating and tending to issues, I have effectively “cleared” my inbox.


And now, I am overwhelmed with anxiety.

Seth Godin's Lizard Brain Reference

As I pause to take emotional inventory (and briefly take my sanity into consideration) I’m realizing that what I’m experiencing is the “Lizard Brain” in revolt. Seth Godin, who remains a favorite author of mine, has termed this kind of response “thinking from the lizard brain.”  After some introspection, I’m realizing that the anxiety is actually a response to freedom. It’s as if my spaceship had been burning fuel, pushing and fighting its way through the Earth’s atmosphere and all of a sudden, as I break through the Stratosphere and into the dark, infinite of space (the direction I had been so desperately fighting to go) I am longing for the pain and striving of my pained ascent. There is security in being overwhelmed; at the very least, it gives you something to do.

Godin explains the Lizard Brain as “a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive.” It’s the “voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise… [it] is writer's block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn't stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.”

So, he argues, living from this part of the brain is what keeps us living in perpetual contradiction. 

It’s what brings me anxiety when I clear my inbox.

The lizard brain is telling me that when my inbox is full, I am useful; I have a mission, no matter how insurmountable or mundane. To the lizard, an empty inbox represents not accomplishment, but a loss of purpose. In reality, the opposite is true (the opposite of the lizard is almost always the truth.) Now that I am done with my emails, I am available to work at the higher-level goals set for me by the executive team, I am free to indulge in the kind of creative “art” (another Godin term) that yields true progress. I am finally free to be truly productive.

The lizard brain wants us to stay small, to live in the security of perpetually answering emails, to strike off items for the sake of striking them off. But, the creative mind cannot fully exist while taking direction from the lizard – the lizard tells us to constantly check our Twitter feed (in lieu of creative, meaningful work) but it was the creative mind that invented Twitter. The lizard avoids confrontation for fear of exposure and the creative mind sees the confrontation for what it is, a necessary and temporary discomfort; a useful exercise in resilience.

The lizard fights freedom because it is afraid of being exposed as a lizard.

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