For years, I’ve marveled at co-workers’ inboxes. Some, like me, make a conscious effort to limit the number of unread emails (even if we don’t always reply to everyone) while others are perfectly happy to let thousands of messages pile up — and simply ignore them.
Personally, I can’t handle the thought of having more than 20 unread messages in my inbox. If my email count surpasses this magic number, I need to take immediate action or else deal with mounting anxiety that prevents me from doing my actual job or enjoying a vacation.
Having a relatively clear inbox is my online equivalent to tidying my desk. Ah, peace.
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Inbox Zero is not always the answer
I’ve subscribed to the Inbox Zero email managing technique for years — or so I thought.
Developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management that seeks to allow people to clear their inbox.
It’s important to note that Zero doesn’t refer to the number of messages that should be left in an inbox, it’s in fact the “amount of time an employee’s brain is in his or her box.”
[Read: 5 easy steps to achieve Inbox Zero]
Mann argues that time and attention are limited and when an inbox is conflated with a “to-do” list, productivity can suffer so he’s identified five possible actions to take for each message: delete, delegate, respond, defer, and do.
I’m going to level with you: I do a lot of deleting, delegating, and deferring — mostly because I get MANY irrelevant emails. But I mainly do it for the small endorphin rush that comes with seeing the number of unread emails go down to ‘0’, rather than actually detaching my brain from my inbox.
Now it’s clear I wasn’t following the true teaching of Inbox Zero, but why is it that we gravitate towards the simple interpretation of ‘zero unreads’?
Understanding the psychology of email
I’ll never fully understand how people can let their emails pile up but — honestly, I break out in sweat when I see my husband’s 50,000 unread emails — but why is it such an issue for people like me?
“When email engines give us unread notifications, they are using a behavioral technique called the Zeigarnik principle,” Beatrice Andrew, a behavioral science consultant at Verj, tells me.
This principle is based on the notion that humans like to complete incomplete things. Hello, this is me in one sentence!
“We like to get to the end of something or complete a whole task. We get a bit of a kick out of getting to the end of something,” Andrew adds.
So, when I feel that slither of anxiety, it’s possible that my brain is unconsciously telling me that I want to untick the notifications or read the unread messages — and me being me, well I can’t let that go.
Andrew says it’s crucial to remember that inboxes are a digital tool we use to assist them. “Rather than being managed by the inbox, we need to find ways of making it work for us in the most effective way,” she notes.
The first thing we need to remember is that we all have different priorities and we need to give people the space to use email that works for them.
Some people might need a nudge if they don’t reply to an email in a timely manner — and that should be OK. Some roles require you to be completely responsive and clear emails immediately, but that might not be the case across everyone in a business.
Overall, it’s important to remember that people with different personalities deal with emails (and other things) very differently. “Humans all think in different ways at different points in time and place,” says Andrew.
- A detailed thinker will need a neat and tidy, administered inbox.
- A process-driven thinker will administer their inbox manually, on an email by email, and case by case basis.
- An abstract visionary thinker will be happy to ignore their inbox and will be unaltered by the mess. (Yikes!).
Managing your inbox — and not the other way round
We create habits when a specific behavior becomes automatic or habitual thanks to regular repetition.
“Email is a habit for many people,” Andrew says, adding “Whether email habits are constructive or destructive in the workplace depends on your responsibilities and priorities.”
[Read: How to achieve Inbox Zero with these Gmail search queries]
What’s really missing is the need to teach appropriate skills that work for different styles and that help you to manage your inbox without getting obsessed.
Andrew recommends you:
- Set times where you check your emails
- Turn off notifications
- Set an ‘Out Of Office’ if you are not able to answer to prevent any ’email anxiety’ forming.
- Make people aware you might be slow to reply with an automatic responder can also help put your mind at ease and manage expectations. My editor, Már, swears by this.
We also need to help each other by following basic email etiquette, writing clearly, and stating when a task or comment is directed at a specific person in an email always helps to direct attention.
“See email as your tool, not something that controls you. Use it to your advantage and set clear boundaries around how you use it that works for you. If you do not see value in your email, consider what you could change that could make it a better experience for you,” Andrew concludes.
As much as they’re annoying, emails are unlikely to go away altogether. So, it’s really about how you approach your inbox that matters.
If you’re using Inbox Zero and it’s not worked so far — or if you’ve been practicing the ‘wrong’ Inbox Zero — it might be time to give up and reconsider. Regardless of what method you use, or don’t use, don’t let it dictate your life. Just remember, an inbox is supposed to work for you not the other way round.
Anyway, I currently have 22 unread emails sitting in my inbox. I’ve got to go. Good luck!