Creative Leadership

Forget Personality Tests – Your E-mail Habits Tell You Who You Are!

“How you handle your e-mail says a lot about you” is the subtitle of an article in today’s Wall Street Journal by Jeffrey Zaslow. I’m a big fan of Jeffrey’s columns, and he’s hit the nail on the head today. How do you handle e-mail? Delete quickly? Hoard? Delegate to different folders? Are you afraid to deal with it? I’d love to hear from you on this one. Let me know if you’re a hoarder or deleter, and what kind of personality you are based on the article:

Hoarders vs. Deleters: How You Handle Your Email Inbox Says a Lot About You
August 10, 2006 By JEFF ZASLOW

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 “euthanasia.”)

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 life.”

Send me the email count in your inbox, and your strategies for coping with it, to Jeffrey.Zaslow@wsj.com1. I’ll do a follow-up column with results — as soon as I can shovel my way out of my own inbox.

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7 Comments

  1. Finally! No more personality tests! I’ll just check my e-mail habits. I have a feeling this is far more accurate than people think.

  2. Check out the excellent book “Never Check Your E-mail in the Morning” by Linda Morgenstern (I believe that’s who wrote it). In fact, Phil – I think you’ve mentioned her book in a blog before. It’s an excellent resource for anyone time-challenged, especially if e-mail is a huge time suck… Keep these things coming. E-mail is bogging down more people than we can imagine, and anything to help us with the bondage is terrific…

  3. Interesting–I fall into the folders category. I check my email several times a day (not quite hourly) and delete many forwards without viewing –clean my spam–and then open and appropriate the rest. If I notice I have been sent a forwarded “blessing-prayer-funny etc.. email by someone who has a more sensitive personality then I will send it back with a few other name thrown on to look as if I responded but I don’t send it to all of my addresses if not then I just delete. Most of what I keep are articles of interest then I put them in appropriate files–Devotionals-Marketplace-Recipes-kids sports/school info-etc..

  4. I found this whole premise to be based on an odd assumption…and that’s that the goal of an inbox was to be empty.

     

    What do I do?  Well… I have about 300 emails come in each day, and only 5% are spam. The rest are automatically filtered into folders according to e-group, client, group of friends, banking, etc.

     

    Most of these folders have hundreds of emails over the last few years. I try to delete emails if I know I won’t need to reference them, but I rarely remember to go back and do that, if I replied to them.

     

    So every day, when I check email, I zip down through the folders, deleting those that don’t need a reply, replying to those that do or that I want to reply to, and marking read those that just need to be held onto for reference.  My shopping folder, which is where the advertisements from online stores get sent to (courtesy of a special email address), is full of unread emails. But every month or two I just delete all the old ones.

     

    So what does that say about me?

  5. Are they talking specifically about unread emails or emails in your inbox in general? I hope it would mean unread because I don’t bother cleaning my inbox with my Gmail account. There’s 7K messages and I’m using 5% of my total space alotted to me. Essentially what I do is star important emails I want to refer back to. I haven’t kept all of them because I think I may need something sent to me 2 years ago, but I don’t sense any urgency to clean it all out because I’ve got so much space available to me.

  6. I actually handle most of my job via email so it’s not so much a distraction from work, it IS my work. Still, I have a hard time staying on top of it. I have 137 emails in my inbox right now, and these are mostly emails requiring a response. (Not spam or silly things from friends.) Awhile back I set a goal to get my box below 10 every evening, but I’ve rarely been able to do it. So basically I feel behind all the time.

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