You’ve tried re-organizing your folders. You’ve tried tinkering with filters. You’ve tried weeding your inbox of gray mail. But nothing works.
The reasons those strategies might flounder is that they fail to address the real source of the problem: your mind. You see, email, like some forms of electronic gambling, taps into some fundamental psychologies that work against your well-intentioned email management plans.
In a recent article for the BBC, Tom Stafford explained how the psychologies will undermine your efforts to tame your inbox. By understanding these psychologies, you may be able to remove some of the anxiety email now creates in your life.
The first psychological tendency identified by Stafford is reciprocity. It’s been around for millennia. In the Bible, it’s expressed as “an eye for an eye.” In politics, it’s referred to as a quid pro quo.
At its heart is the simple idea that if someone does something for you, you ought to do something for them. So if someone sends you an email, you’re inclined to send an email to them — even if such a response may not be warranted. Once you realize that, you should be able to ignore a bunch of the email that you receive without feeling guilty about it.
Another psychology identified by Stafford is the desire to be rewarded. Operators of gambling establishments know all too well how this psychology works. One of the reasons that we constantly check our inboxes is that we expect to find a reward there. It can be a compliment for something we’ve done, a tender message from someone we know, a joke from a friend or an important request from a colleague. Needless to say, if you think you’re going to be rewarded for something, you’re going to do it more.
Moreover, because you never know when you’re going to find a reward in your email, you’re constantly checking it in the hopes that you will find a reward when you do. That’s what’s known as an irregular reward, and everyone from animal trainers to designers of video slot machines know how powerful an incentive it can be.
When you know the role that regular rewards play in your email behavior, you can resist the temptation to frequently check your inbox and steel your will power so you can adhere to a rigid schedule for peeking at it. Such a schedule is recommended by many email management experts as a means of carving out the amount of time email takes out of your day.
There is an added advantage to postponing peeks at your inbox. The immediacy of email can create a reward in itself for checking your inbox. The more time between inbox inspections, the less immediacy becomes a reward for checking email. It’s the same principle behind the value of news, Stafford points out. We’re willing to pay for news as it happens, but we wouldn’t pay anything for that news a day later.
Responsibility also plays a role in email compulsions, according to Stafford. Once a message arrives in our inbox, we feel that we own it. As such, we feel responsible for its disposition. That tendency can be ameliorated by asking yourself a simple question: “If I didn’t have this information in my inbox, would I go out looking for it?”
With some awareness of these tendencies, you can clear away some of the psychological rot weakening your efforts to manage your email.