Inbox Zero vs. Inbox 5,000: A Unified Theory

There are two types of people in the world: those with hundreds of unread messages, and those who can’t relax until their inboxes are cleared out.

The photographer would like readers to know her inbox is much tidier than the one pictured. (Nadine Ajaka / The Atlantic)

For some, it’s a spider. For others, it’s an unexpected run-in with an ex. But for me, discomfort is a dot with a number in it: 1,328 unread-message notifications? I just can’t fathom how anyone lives like that.

How is it that some people remain calm as unread messages trickle into their inboxes and then roost there unattended, while others can’t sit still knowing that there are bolded-black emails and red-dotted Slack messages? I may operate toward the extreme end of compulsive notification-eliminators, but surveys suggest I’m not alone: One 2012 study found that 70 percent of work emails were attended to within six seconds of their arrival.

This has led me to a theory that there are two types of emailers in the world: Those who can comfortably ignore unread notifications, and those who feel the need to take action immediately.

So what puts people in one camp or the other? Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine, has explored just this sort of question. A few years ago, she ran a study in which office workers were cut off from using email for one workweek and were equipped with heart-rate monitors; on average, going cold turkey significantly reduced their stress levels. (One intriguing recommendation that came out of the study was for companies to experiment with setting up systems in which less-urgent emails were exchanged in batches: in the morning, around lunchtime, and in the evening.)

After interviewing several people about their relationship with email, Mark has noticed that, for some people, email is an extension of autonomy—it's about having control. One subject, she said, told her, “I let the sound of the bell and the popups rule my life.” Compulsively checking email or compulsively clearing out queues of unread emails, then, can be a form of regaining some of that control. “So I might refine your theory to say that those who feel compelled to check email may be more susceptible to feeling a loss of control [and] in missing out on information,” Mark said.

When someone drops everything just to get an unread count back to zero, productivity might be taking a hit. “It takes people on average about 25 minutes to reorient back to a task when they get interrupted,” she says. Yes, that includes even brief interruptions, like dashing off a quick response to an email, and it often takes so long to get back on task because the project you start doing after handling an email often isn’t the same as the one you were already doing. (These interruptions are so integral to modern workflows, Mark says, that when people lack external interruptions, such as a coworker striking up a conversation, they voluntarily interrupt themselves—sometimes by checking email.)

I happen to like Mark’s theory, but I also think there’s another urge that fuels the nagging feeling that comes with unread messages: Immediately reading and archiving incoming emails is just like checking a box on a to-do list and clearing out unread stories in an RSS feed. In other words, the appeal of these behaviors lies in the illusion of progress that they foster. Few tasks have a sense of conclusion as neat and immediate as archiving or deleting an email. For that reason, neurotically tidy people like me can't help but triage emails the moment they arrive.

There are, of course, other lenses through which to view these opposing email sensibilities. Jamie Madigan, a psychologist who writes about video games, thinks the arrival of a notification might be similar to the accrual of virtual loot. Email, in other words, might not be just a task, but a game. “Designers of apps for the Web, phones, and other devices figured this out early on,” he says. “In the case of our phones, we see, hear, or feel a notification alert show up, we open the app, and we are rewarded with something we like: a message from a friend, a like, an upvote, or whatever.” He guesses that people who don’t mind notification pileups don’t perceive as much of a reward from getting retweets or Facebook likes.

Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology (and an Atlantic contributing editor), offers a similar theory. “What if actually there are people who care about technology as a part of their identity, and people who don’t?” He stressed that his potential explanation was untested, but I do think his point about self-identity might account for a portion of the difference.

Still, the chasm between these groups seems too wide to be just about technology. The icky feeling I get when I catch a glimpse of someone’s inbox junkyard of unread emails is the same one I get when I see the pile of magazines I have yet to read, or when I know there’s an errand that needs running—the itch isn’t constrained to technology. My email theory is really just a corollary of another, more expansive pop philosophy: Muppet Theory, proposed by Dahlia Lithwick, a writer at Slate. Under Lithwick’s classification, everyone is either a Chaos Muppet (“out-of-control, emotional, volatile”) or an Order Muppet (“neurotic, highly-regimented, averse to surprises”). Lithwick’s theory plays nicely with Gloria Mark’s, and I tend to think that—hold on, an email just came in and if you give me one sec, I just need to respond to it.