I had 47 emails in my inbox this morning, not counting what Gmail and Mac Mail managed to filter out into spam, listservs, Google Alerts and ads. That’s pretty typical for a Friday. Saturdays have a lot less, leaving me feeling both relieved and anxious that something maybe didn’t get through. Am I unusually neurotic about email? I don’t think so.
Why does this matter? Because email dynamics have created a new benchmark by which we internally judge our competence and effectiveness, satisfy our need to know ‘what’s going on,’ connect with peers and colleagues and, if we’re honest with ourselves, worry that it reflects our importance to others. It’s not our only means of connection, given the vast amount of social technologies, but email has a certain gravitas (who would have thought?) compared to messages arriving via Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.
We all approach email a bit differently. Not just what we say or send, but what we keep. Beyond issues of privacy and disclosure, netiquette and emoticons, the ubiquity of the “Email In-Box” raises the question of how we manage our ’email capital’. Not everyone uses email the same way, but never before in history has it been possible to have so much ‘personal contact’ from so many. For some, it’s a career lifeline, for others it’s the center of their social existence. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. How we manage email is some combination of how we use it, how important different types of emails are to us is it from a lover or an ad with a coupon off), and our approach to information, life and, unfortunately, self image.
There is no denying that email feels personal, particularly now that smartphones extend what used to be a desktop/laptop event. Studies have used email and SMS text messaging as interventions to change behavior (e.g., Lim, et al., 2012). This makes the issue of managing email a more loaded one than, say, coming home from vacation to sort through a week’s pile of snail mail.
We also still have a generation gap, not by age but by technology adoption. Once adopted, people also vary in their interest and ability to “control” digital correspondence. Some people don’t use it at all, finding it more trouble than it’s worth—to the chagrin of their acquaintances who want to send out the organization’s newsletter, garden club minutes or soccer schedule in PDF rather than print and mail.
Some of the variation in email management is a knowledge and skills-based issue. Some people don’t know about spam filters, folders, how to set delete preferences on the server, or even the location of the DELETE ALL button along with the various other ways of managing all those e-missives.
The unspoken equivalent of an organized email box is having your underwear drawer or file cabinet organized. It’s something we feel we should strive for but rarely achieve. For most, email management is a reflection of personality-related behaviors—a combination of organization, procrastination, perfectionism, fear of loss, and the ability to let go. It’s time to acknowledge your style so you can emotionally let go.
The Email Dominatrix
The super efficient brooks no misbehavior from email and has a zero tolerance policy for unread email. Whips and boots aside, most organization gurus will tell you to triage your email at scheduled times to determine what can be handled with a quick answer or what needs to be dealt with in other ways. The idea is that you are in control, not your inbox. This approach means your do not allow the existence of unread email piling up and making you crazy. Once you know you have time scheduled to review your inbox, you are cognitively free to move on and, therefore, have uninterrupted time to devote to your real work or real life and be more productive. Psychologically, it can make you feel anxious to know emails are accumulating unless you have a scheduled strategy for their review and have given ourselves “permission” to deal with them based on your schedule, not theirs (unless you truly don’t care what’s there). Just because someone contact you doesn’t mean YOU have to answer. Keep the power.
Everyone knows that email processing can eat up your day if you aren’t making priority judgments about what’s important. This makes keeping a zero unread email box by continually checking to see if anything has come in an excellent strategy for avoiding doing something hard where you have to think. If you deal with all your email to avoid doing your work, you don’t have to worry about saving the emails for later. Ironically, in spite of what you tell yourself when admiring that tidy inbox, this approach contributes to your sense of being anxious and overwhelmed and anxiety because the hard stuff isn’t getting done and that’s the work that takes significant uninterrupted time.
Filterers and Filers
Some people save their read email using filters and folders to facilitate finding information in the future. Saving emails is faster than saving the information in another format (such as saving to PDF and filing it away outside of the mail program.) If you need to hunt for old travel reservations, tax receipts or proposals, this strategy makes some sense. Although it is probably a little delusional since mail programs are surprisingly difficult to search relative to normal files. How many times have you searched for an email and had to ask a colleague, “what date did you send it on?” There is, however, such as small marginal cost in saving emails in terms of storage, that tidying up the email boxes only makes sense economically if your email file is sluggish, not because you are hitting your email box capacity. Some email programs, like Mac Mail, make archiving years impossible, thus making the ‘lose it or save it’ dilemma more difficult. The filter and file strategy works especially well for Perfectionists.
Ok, you know who you are. Perfectionists save the read emails with the idea that they will get to everything asked of them, from redeeming coupons, attending webinars to reading ebook downloads from Hubspot, not to mention real world. It’s the digital equivalent of the mending in the back of the closet or a to-do list that is so long it can’t possibly be useful. It may be potential intellectual or social capital in the making, but it is non-prioritized. This allows Perfectionists to justify being a workaholic, however, should the need for justification arise.
Most people actually read their email–our professional and social lives are largely centered around digital communications. A few don’t. Someone with thousands of unread emails doesn’t care very much what they say or doesn’t feel that there is anything in there that’s urgent or relevant to what they’re doing on a daily basis. However, they still have email. Why? Not deleting all those unread emails provides the illusion that if you WANTED to know what was going on in there, you could find out but at the same time, you are very popular because why else would you have all that email? It also means that Free Spirits have figured out a way to stay in touch with people who really matter without using email, whether that’s texting or carrier pigeon. We are, after all, social animals.
The Truly Overwhelmed
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between Free Spirits and the Truly-Overwhelmed, since neither answer emails, or do so only sporadically. The difference can be seen in their faces. The Italian post office once got so behind that they just threw away a bunch of mail and started fresh. That’s a reasonable strategy for the Truly Over-Whelmed. Be brave. Throw them out and start fresh. If you missed something important, I guarantee that you will get the “Did you get my Email?” email.
Some people save read emails for the sense of security it gives to believe they could find stuff if they needed to, but they rarely or never need to. Some of us have more tolerance for uncertainty than others. Saving emails is an unsatisfactory security blanket in the long run, however, because you have to remember so much stuff (like the subject line) in order to find a specific email.
Some people save emails from friends, family and people they care about because it just ‘seems wrong’ to delete them. This personality is completely ill-suited for SnapChat.
What Matters Most
What matters most is that 1) you recognize that email maintence is not a reflection of your self worth, competence or general likeability, and 2) like with most things, how you choose to manage your email works for you. Otherwise you can join me in the ranks of the Email Frustrated.
The Email Frustrated
The Email Frustrated is a hybrid of Filterer/Filer, Perfectionist and Romantic. We spend all our time searching on Google for a better email program that can solve our email management problems because we save too much and still can never find anything when we need it. If you have a good one that works on a Mac, please let me know. I’m still looking!
Lim, M. S. C., Hocking, J. S., Aitken, C. K., Fairley, C. K., Jordan, L., Lewis, J. A., et al. (2012). Impact of Text and Email Messaging on the Sexual Health of Young People: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66(1), 69-74.