Your e-mail inbox is a metaphor for your life

This is an archived article that was published on in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You are your inbox.

Take a clear-eyed look at how you answer or file each e-mail. 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.

E-mail 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 e-mail to an appropriate folder while killing junk ''spam'' on arrival and making sure Mom knows that we got her e-mail and still love her. Meanwhile, others among us are e-procrastinators - modern-day Scarlett O'Haras who figure we'll deal with old e-mail 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 e-mail,'' he says.

In desperation, he decided to delete all his messages. He then sent an e-mail 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 e-mails 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.''

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 e-mail.

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, 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 Mann says such ruthlessness is necessary.

He says he uses a few dozen ''templates'' to answer e-mail - 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 e-mail 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 e-mail. ''Multitasking is a misnomer,'' says 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 e-mail 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 e-mail by sender. ''That allows you to delete 1,000 e-mails an hour,'' she says.

University of Toronto instructor Christina Cavanagh studied hundreds of office workers for her book Managing Your E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox. One of her subjects, a finance executive, had 10,000 e-mails in his inbox. She advised him to simply delete the oldest 9,000. Busy people, drowning in e-mail, may have no choice but to kill old messages and suffer the consequences. (Mann calls this ''euthanasia.'')

Because ''inboxes are metaphors for our lives,'' 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 e-mails 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,'' Greenfield says. ''If you have only 10 e-mails in your inbox, you may be pulling the trigger too fast and missing the richness of life.''