Hoarders vs. Deleters: How You Handle
Your Email Inbox Says a Lot About You
You are your inbox.
Take a clear-eyed look at how you answer or file each email. Notice
what you choose to keep or delete. Consider your anxiety when your
inbox is jammed with unanswered messages.
The makeup and tidiness of your inbox is a reflection of your habits,
your mental health and, yes, even the way Mom and Dad raised you.
"If you keep your inbox full rather than empty, it may mean you keep
your life cluttered in other ways," says psychologist Dave Greenfield,
who founded the Center for Internet Behavior in West Hartford,
Conn. "Do you cling to the past? Do you have a lot of unfinished
business in your life?"
On the other hand, if you obsessively clean your inbox every 10
minutes, you may be so quick to move on that you miss opportunities
and ignore nuances. Or your compulsion for order may be sapping your
energy from other endeavors, such as your family.
Email addiction, of course, is now a cultural given. But a
less-noticed byproduct of that is the impulse of the inbox. Some of us
are obsessed with moving every email to an appropriate folder while
killing junk "spam" on arrival and making sure Mom knows that we got
her email and still love her. Meanwhile, others among us are
e-procrastinators -- modern-day Scarlett O'Haras who figure we'll deal
with old email tomorrow. We're discovering that the disorder in our
inboxes mirrors the disorder in our homes, marriages and checkbooks.
A few months ago, Scott Stratten was suffering from what he terms
"inbox paralysis." A marketing consultant in Oakville, Ontario, he had
500 old messages in his inbox, all needing responses. "I felt so
guilty, I couldn't even bring myself to open my email," he says.
In desperation, he decided to delete all his messages. He then sent an
email blast to 400 people on his contact list, telling them a lie. He
made up a story that his Internet service provider had informed him
that some emails weren't getting through -- and that was why friends
and clients never heard back from him. "People were very empathetic,"
he says, "and it allowed me to start fresh."
Mr. Stratten describes what he did as "pure evil," but he also calls
it a turning point. He realized he had to find a better way to ease
his guilt over not coming through for people. He is now hiring an
assistant who will handle his email.
Those who are too nice in other areas of their lives may be more
likely to struggle with unwieldy inboxes, says Merlin Mann, creator of
43folders.com, a Web site about personal productivity. Polite people
(or those who want to be liked) feel obliged to participate in
ping-pong correspondences with chatty friends. They haven't the heart
to give anyone the no-response brush-off. But Mr. Mann says such
ruthlessness is necessary.
He says he uses a few dozen "templates" to answer email -- prewritten
form letters in which he inserts a person's name or a personalized
comment. He also empties his inbox hourly. "You have to treat your
inbox like you treat your mailbox at home," he says. "You wouldn't
store your bills inside your mailbox. And leaving spam in your inbox
is like leaving garbage in your kitchen."
On the work front, you're most at risk for inbox clutter if you're the
type who can't say "no," warns Nancy Flynn, executive director of the
ePolicy Institute, a consulting firm. When you're quick to respond
with offers of help, "people use email to turn their crisis into your
emergency," she says.
In Greensboro, N.C., Internet consultant Wally Bock keeps his inbox
down to a manageable few dozen messages. He credits his sense of order
to "having disciplined parents who made that a value." Still, he
recognizes the downside. Many "Inbox Zero" zealots interrupt their
work every time they hear a ping announcing incoming
email. "Multitasking is a misnomer," says Mr. Bock. "What you're
really doing is switching rapidly between tasks. And every time you
switch, you have to start up again. Over the course of a day, you
lose a chunk of efficiency."
A saner way to pare down an inbox is to move email into folders -- by
subject or need for follow-up -- and once a week set aside time for
inbox housekeeping. That's advice from Marilyn Paul, author of "It's
Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys," a book for
the chronically disorganized. She also suggests using the inbox
alphabetizing feature, which organizes all email by sender. "That
allows you to delete 1,000 emails an hour," she says.
University of Toronto instructor Christina Cavanagh studied hundreds
of office workers for her book "Managing Your Email: Thinking Outside
the Inbox." One of her subjects, a finance executive, had 10,000
emails in his inbox. She advised him to simply delete the oldest
9,000. Busy people, drowning in email, may have no choice but to kill
old messages and suffer the consequences. (Mr. Mann calls this
Because "inboxes are metaphors for our lives," Dr. Greenfield says,
there's no cure-all solution to inbox management. We're all too
different. But he believes an awareness of our inbox behavior can help
us better understand other areas of our lives.
"If you have 1,000 emails in your inbox, it may mean you don't want to
miss an opportunity, but there are things you can't pull the trigger
on," Dr. Greenfield says. "If you have only 10 emails in your inbox,
you may be pulling the trigger too fast and missing the richness of
Send me the email count in your inbox, and your strategies for coping
with it, to Jeffrey.Zaslow@wsj.com. I'll do a follow-up column with
results -- as soon as I can shovel my way out of my own inbox.