Email Management: Spirit Strong, but Mind Weak

Try as you might, you may find that no matter what email management scheme you adopt, you still can’t get a handle on this stuff.

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.

Written by John P Mello Jr

John Mello is a freelance writer who has written about business and technical subjects for more than 25 years. He is frequent contributor to the ECT News Network and his work has appeared in a number of periodicals, including Byte magazine, PC World, Computerworld, CIO magazine and the Boston Globe


  1. Aldred Soverino · November 14, 2012

    I am guilty. I check my mailbox almost every hour, and yeah, it’s extremely frustrating because the process can be very tiring. Yet you cannot easily kick it out because it’s already part of your system. This article is extremely insightful since I begin to understand my impulses a little bit more. It’s actually right in saying that we do feel the need to be rewarded, so we check our emails constantly to see if someone has sent us some good e-mail. Perhaps I’ll try the suggestion, limiting my checking to around 3 a day. Let us see what happens.

  2. Kevin · November 17, 2012

    I really think it takes a lot of courage to let go of the habit of constantly reading e-mails. A person who is able to achieve that means he is at risk of missing out a very urgent message! But as I sit here and contemplate on the article, it dawned on me that control also helps you become a potential spamming or phishing victim. After all, you do not go loco about every e-mail that you receive.

    @Aldred: That is a good move. I will also promise that to myself. I think we’re going to benefit from this decision.

  3. Grace Nelson · November 20, 2012

    This actually reminds me of Leo Babauta’s golden rule: one habit at a time. Perhaps one of the reasons why many can’t just quit these unnecessary habits is because they are trying to do so many things at the same time. That’s a very difficult way to achieve self-discipline. You know, just take things slowly but surely. Perhaps you can begin by reducing the time you spent checking on e-mails. Once you develop the habit, you can then decrease creating too many filtering rules, so on and so forth. Before you know it, you’ve already mastered your inbox.

  4. Damian · November 22, 2012

    @Grace: I thought of the same thing, too, Grace. You’re 100 percent right! Nothing gets ever done once a person starts to multi-task. There’s also changing the mind-set. If I may quote, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You’ll ever know what you’re going to get.” Perhaps we can apply the same thing here, you know. If we can just hold lengthen our patience and not open our mailbox for at least the next few hours, we’ll have a lot of surprises to look forward to. Like any change, it’s not going to be easy, but it’s something that can definitely be done.

  5. Candice Thomas · November 28, 2012

    I used to be extremely obsessed when it comes to my e-mails, but as they say, too much of a good thing is just as bad as having none of it. It definitely took a lot of my time, and I easily got frustrated if some e-mails wouldn’t end up in their right folders. In the end, I became exhausted and just decided to spend at most an hour tinkering with my e-mails. I unsubscribed in newsletters that didn’t have any value to me. I also installed Read Me Later plug-in for websites I want to check out later in the day or even the week.

  6. Annie More · December 3, 2012

    Wow, that is Forrest Gump, Damian. I love that movie to death! Anyway, I think this problem is going to intensify with the presence of mobile devices such as smart phones. Free e-mail platforms such as Gmail already have their own apps (and they are still available for free!), and there is WiFi almost everywhere. There is no reason why they cannot access their mails while on the go. On the other hand, this brings another issue, which is email security. Though mobile devices are small, they are extremely exposed to the public and more vulnerable to loss and theft.

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