Taming the beast: Five tips for reducing inbox clutter

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by an overflowing, cluttered, anxiety-inducing inbox. ✋

Email, an abbreviation of “electronic mail,” was invented in the early 1970s by Ray Tomlinson as a personal side project. Tomlinson later said he ” had no notion whatsoever of what the ultimate impact would be.”[1]

Since the first email sent by Tomlinson in 1971, email has ushered in an incredible new era of communication we now enjoy with billions of people all over the world sending and receiving emails every day. [1]

What Tomlinson, surely, did not anticipate back then was how ubiquitous, addictive and compulsive email would eventually become for its users.

How did an invention meant to serve as a speedy way for programmers and researchers to keep in touch – particularly for those who can’t be relied on to answer their phones become a nuance to our daily lives?

This past Friday, Tracy from Nested Feng Shui and I went on Instagram Live to discuss what makes email addictive, tips for reducing inbox clutter, and the importance of setting boundaries when it comes to our digital spaces.

YOU CAN WATCH THE CONVERSATION HERE!


The hook model: What makes email devilishly addictive

The average full-time worker in America receives 120 messages per day, and spends around 2.6 hours reading and answering emails. And, on average, professionals check their email 15 times per day, or every 37 minutes.[2]

Why do we feel the urge to check our email so often, so compulsively, and yet so unnecessarily?

It’s not you. And, it’s not me.

It’s the attention economy.

According to Nir Eyal, companies are increasingly using a new, stronger habit-forming mechanism to hook users called the Hook Model. The Hook Model is a variable of rewards used to grab our attention, provide us pleasure, and infatuate our mind. [3]

Variable rewards refer to rewards we receive randomly and without a fixed patter that are “a powerful inducement to creating compulsions.” Variable rewards come in three types and involve the persistent pursuit of: rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self.[3]

Rewards of the tribe: Humans have evolved as species because of our ability to co-exist in larger groups and create tribes. Thus, our brain is hardwired to seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included. Email, like all social media sites, provides us with powerful social rewards and social validation, but on a variable schedule, creating the desire to check it compulsively to see who messaged us, if our boss has responded back to our pitch yet, and so forth.

Rewards of the hunt: While belonging to a tribe is a powerful basic need, our individual need for sustenance is even more crucial. We are hardwired to acquire food and other resources needed for our survival. “But where we once hunted for food, today we hunt for deals and information.”[3] We are hardwired to check if we have received an email about a potential business opportunity.

Rewards of the self: Us humans seek variable rewards that stimulate our senses for personal gratification. “Babies put everything in their mouths for the same reason there are flashing neon lights in Las Vegas. We love novel sensory stimulation.”[3] We also seek mastery of the world around us, with the desire to control, dominate, and complete challenges around us. Our email seems to call for us to complete the task of removing the unopened item notification in a sort of challenge to gain control over it.

Is it then any wonder that most of us feel overwhelmed with email, anxiously checking and re-checking our inboxes, and wasting precious time processing emails? The good news is there is still hope for cultivating a healthier co-existence with our inboxes.

Below are four tips Tracy and I discussed during our Instagram Live to tame the beast that is email and take control of our inboxes.


Taming the beast: Five tips for reducing inbox clutter

TURN OFF EMAIL NOTIFICATIONS

How strange would it be if the mailman was to run up to you all day long and hand you mails asking you to take a look at it right away? Pretty strange, but that is exactly what is happening with email notifications. Notifications interrupt us, costing us valuable time and reducing our cognitive ability to focus on important tasks.[2]

And, how many of the emails we get on a daily basis are actually important and urgent? Not many. So, why do we allow them to demand our attention whenever a notification pops up?

As Tracy eloquently put it, the first thing to say is, “no thank you.” Turn off notifications and schedule dedicated time to check email.

UNSUBSCRIBE

62% of all email we receive is not important. [2]

Still, these emails overflow our digital space, create mind-clutter without adding much value to our life. Processing irrelevant emails individually also wastes our precious time and attention.

Unsubscribing from newsletters you don’t use is a great way to reduce inbox clutter. Next time a subscription email arrives in your inbox, ask yourself the following questions: Is this newsletter useful? Does this newsletter add value to my life? Would I miss it if I never got another email from this newsletter?

If you answer “no” to those questions, it might be time to unsubscribe from your subscription.

It is very empowering to be selective of who gets access to your email inbox. It is important to view our inbox as a sacred space for emails that bring value to our lives.

If it doesn’t bring you joy, you don’t need it.” — Tracy

Tracy also mentioned something very powerful: The same hook model that is working on our dopamine reward system can be used to reprogram our brain to find decluttering our inbox and having a clear digital space rewarding.

Set some time aside, an hour or two, to declutter and organize your inbox. I bet you will feel a whole lot better.

INBOX ZERO

If we were to have hundreds of pages of paper documents piled up on our desk, you would feel overwhelmed at the clutter, but because email clutter lives on a digital space, we believe it doesn’t have the same impact on how we feel about our space. It is taking mental space.

I have always struggled with Inbox Zero.

I suffer from email anxiety, and that means I always have unread emails in my inbox. Tracy’s analogy of how nature clears out the debris to create space was so powerful for me, and I actually accomplished Inbox Zero for my business email this past weekend. It was delightful!

Inbox Zero isn’t for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel you have to reach Inbox Zero to experience inbox bliss.

As Tracy tells everyone, “don’t should on yourself.”

FOLDERS

The simplest way to organize your email is to set up folders for various categories of information in a similar way you do for your paper files. You can create folders for various subjects or people or types of messages and archive them accordingly.

Folders have been a life saver for me!

I am an email junkie, and tend to hold onto emails forever. Having specific folders means, those emails can live in a specific folder without cluttering my inbox, but I don’t feel anxious about deleting emails I feel the need to keep.

However, it is important to keep in mind that having too many folders can become counter-productive by wasting time and creating unnecessary clutter.[2]

SET BOUNDARIES

Boundaries help us thrive. They help us focus on what is important to us, and what we value.

Our email is a space that is difficult to set boundaries in because there are so many people, things, and information vying for our attention in that space.

Still, it is important to know what boundaries you need to set for a clutter-free inbox, set those boundaries, and keep enforcing them.

Inbox When Ready is a Chrome extension that help you check your inbox with reasonable frequency, batch process your email on a regular schedule and minimize the total time you spend in your inbox. It is a great tool to create boundaries to improve your inbox flow and reduce stress and increase focus.

Boundaries can be either physical or mental, and are very unique to each individual.

What are some boundaries you can set for an inbox that brings joy?


I hope you found these tips useful, and learned a thing or two about email and the psychology behind what makes it so addictive.

If you are interested in learning more about about digital wellness and digital minimalism, check out our weekly conversation series Focus Fridays!

📌 ABOUT FOCUS FRIDAYS: Every Friday, Tracy and I go on Instagram Live at 3:55PM EST to discuss all things related to digital wellness, what we can do to take back control of our time and attention, and share practical tips for healthier life-tech balance.

JOIN US: @nestedfundshui@digitalwellness.coach

Until next time… 🙂


References

[1] Swatman, R. (2015, August 19). 1971: First Ever Email.

[2] Plummer, M., Knight, R., Friedman, R., & Webb, C. (2019, March 21). How to Spend Way Less Time on Email Every Day.

[3] Eyal, N. (2020, March 18). Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy.

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