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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

November 3, 2012 at 7:28 PM

An empty inbox: feasible or fantasy?

If your inbox could talk, would it say you’re going crazy?

Seattle technologist Buster Benson publishes the number of unread emails in his inbox on his personal website and on the home page of one of his many lifestyle side projects — howsmyemail.com. When those emails top 100, he says, there’s a good chance something’s stressing him out.

But everyone’s panic button is different.

“My wife Kellianne, for instance, is regularly in the mid to high hundreds of unread emails and it doesn’t seem to bother her,” Benson emailed. “That would drive me bonkers.”

If the number of unread emails is on any level an indicator of how in or out of control things are, I’m in trouble. I have 1,080 unread emails in my inbox as I write. More, probably, as you read. I wouldn’t say I’m losing it. But every time that number goes up, a muscle in my shoulders pulls a little tighter. Something’s broke and I’ve got to fix it.

You might say that’s true of email itself. It’s been 41 years since MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message, but a decade into the rise of social communications technologies, email has lost its monopoly on one-to-one digital communication.

But not its place as a barometer of stress.

Unlike friends lists and smartphone home screens, email is the one tech house we’re expected to keep tidy, or else. But it remains our central communication hub, and it’s by far the hardest to clean.

A 2011 Pew Internet survey affirmed that email is still the most popular online activity, along with searching the Web. Yet all day, every day, tasks from our personal, social and workplace lives vie for our attention. Subscriptions and updates blab on as if we have time to listen. And spam attacks from hidden outposts, often infiltrating our best defenses.

We try to be vigilant, but even acts of everyday online citizenry invite fresh assaults. The website where I bought my dad’s birthday present this week demanded an email address as well as the standard payment information. Did I sign on to some once and future email list? Who knows? I can delete, unsubscribe or archive, but there’s no escaping it: Every new email is work.

And don’t we know it. Go to your email and notice your reaction: Did you hold your breath? Seattle’s Linda Stone coined the term “email apnea” to describe that effect.

It’s no wonder, then, that keeping your inbox in order takes on the feel of a spiritual journey, and reaching that high holy place — inbox 0 — requires ninja-like qualities of strength, cunning and a little hi-ya.

Not to mention a triumph of mental health. A whole industry of third-party tools assists basic inbox management with folders, labels, filters and other features to help the organized (or desperate) tame the chaos. One I’ve heard more than a few savvy Seattleites recommend — including some pretty overworked startup CEOs — is aptly called Sane Box. It does well what third-party email tools do best: sort out the least important stuff so you don’t have to.

It’s one thing to clean your inbox once and another thing to maintain it. On that front, I’ve learned the hard way that rules are much more important than tools. The four d’s of email get a lot of traction — with every email, either Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Dump it. Combined with another email rule to live by, “touch it once,” that’s enough to keep a healthy rhythm. In theory.

My husband likes to say that if self-help books worked, they wouldn’t still be writing them. Using tools and adopting rules take effort, not just once, but all the time. That’s where our best intentions break down.

Why is it so hard to stay disciplined? A 2010 study by Stanford University’s Stephen Barley gives a clue. In the course of observing how workers at a tech company managed and talked about their email, researchers recommended that they answer messages in batches and use filters to keep things organized. The subjects ignored them.

“We suspect that our informants did not filter or batch because such tactics were of little use for relieving the stress they felt,” the researchers concluded.

The subjects had various technologies that contribute to our workload — personal or professional. But email, the researchers discovered, was the one they complained about most. It’s not just a source, but a symbol of stress.

At a time when we can communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, email has become not just the nerve center of our productivity, but of our state of mind.

“I see ‘inbox 0′ as a proxy for being one-up on everything going on in my life,” Benson wrote.

Do you?

Thanks to University of Washington professor David Levy and everyone who chatted about this on Facebook for the insights!

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