What Does Your Email In-Box Say About You?

How we manage email depends on how we use it and our general approach to life

Posted Apr 24, 2015

I had 47 emails in my inbox this morning, not counting what Gmail and Mac Mail managed to filter out into spam, listservs and ads.  That’s pretty typical for a Friday.  Saturdays have a lot less, leaving me feeling both relieved and anxious that something maybe didn’t get through.  Am I unusually neurotic about email?  I don’t think so.

We all approach about information sharing and storing a bit differently and the same goes for email.  Not just what we say or send, but what we keep.  The ubiquity of “in-boxes” raises the question of how we manage the ones we receive.  Not everyone uses email the same way, but never before in history has it been possible to have so much “personal contact” from so many.  For some, it’s a career lifeline, for others it’s the center of their social existence.  Most of us are somewhere in the middle.  How we manage email depends on how we use it, how important different types of emails are to us is it from a lover or an ad with a coupon off), and our general approach to information and life.  

Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock
Source: Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock

There is no denying that email feels personal, particularly now that smartphones extend what used to be a desktop/laptop event.  Studies have used email and SMS text messaging as interventions to change behavior (e.g., Lim, et al., 2012).  This makes the issue of managing email a more loaded one than, say, coming home from vacation to sort through a week’s pile of snail mail.

We also still have a generation gap, not by age but by technology adoption.  People vary in their interest and ability to “control” digital correspondence, such as email.  Some people don’t use it at all, finding it more trouble than it’s worth—to the chagrin of their social group who wants to send out the gardening club minutes in PDF. 

Some of the variation in email management is entirely a knowledge and skills-based issue.  For example, some people don’t know about spam filters, folders, the location of the delete button or other ways of managing all those e-missives.

The unspoken goal of an organized email box is akin to having your desk drawer organized.  But for most, email management comes down to some more personality-related behaviors—a combination of organization, procrastination, perfectionism, fear of loss, and the ability to let go.  Where do you fall?

The Email Dominatrix

The super efficient will have a zero tolerance policy for unread email.  Most organization gurus will tell you to triage your email—deal with it during set times and determine what can be handled with a quick answer or what needs to be set aside when you have more time. The idea is to not have the unread pile gaining on you making your crazy.  Once you know you have time scheduled to review your inbox, you can move on to uninterrupted time and be more productive.  Psychologically, it makes you feel behind to know those emails are piling up unless you have a scheduled strategy for their review (unless you truly don’t care what’s there). 

The Procrastinator

Everyone knows that email processing can eat up your day if you aren’t making priority judgments about what’s important.  This makes keeping a zero unread email box an excellent strategy for someone who is avoiding doing something hard where they have to think.  If you deal with all your email to avoid doing your work, you don’t have to worry about saving them for later.

The Filterer and Filer

Some people save their read email using filters and folders to facilitate finding information in the future.  Saving emails is faster than saving the information in another format (such as saving to PDF and filing it away outside of the mail program.)  If you need to hunt for old travel reservations, tax receipts or proposals, this strategy makes some sense.  Although it is probably a little delusional since mail programs are difficult to search relative to normal files.  How many times have you searched for an email and had to ask a colleague, “what date did you send it?”  There is, however, such as small marginal cost in saving emails in terms of storage, that tidying up the email boxes only makes sense economically if your email file is sluggish, not because you are hitting your email box capacity.  Some email programs, like Mac Mail, make archiving years impossible, thus creating a lose it or save it dilemma more difficult.  This strategy works for Perfectionists.

The Perfectionist

Ok, you know who you are.  Perfectionists save the read emails with the idea that they will get to everything asked of them, from redeeming coupons to attending webinars and reading ebook downloads from Hubspot.  It’s the digital equivalent of the mending in the back of the closet or a to-do list that is so long it can’t possibly be useful. This allows Perfectionists to justify being a workaholic, however, should the need for justification arise.

Free Spirits 

Most people actually read their email--our professional and social lives are largely centered around digital communications.   A few don’t.  Someone with thousands of unread emails doesn’t care very much what they say or doesn’t feel that there is anything in there that’s urgent or relevant to what they’re doing on a daily basis. Not deleting all those unread emails provides the illusion that if you WANTED to know what was going on in there, you could find out.  At the same time, you have the sense that you must be very popular because why else would you have all that email?  It probably also means that Free Spirits have figured out a way to stay in touch with people who really matter without using email, whether that’s texting or carrier pigeon.

The Truly Overwhelmed

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between Free Spirits and the Truly-Overwhelmed, since neither answer emails, or do so only sporadically.  The difference can be seen in their faces.  The Italian post office once got so behind that they just threw away a bunch of mail and started fresh.  That’s a reasonable strategy for the Truly Over-Whelmed.  If you missed something important, most likely you will get the “Did you get my Email” email.

Security Seekers 

Some people save read emails for the sense of security it gives to believe they could find stuff if they needed to, but they rarely or never need to.  Some of us have more tolerance for uncertainty than others.  Saving emails is an unsatisfactory security blanket in the long run, however, because you have to remember so much stuff (like the subject line) in order to find a specific email.


Some people save emails from friends, family and people they care about because it just seems wrong to delete them as if it’.  This tends to be someone completely ill-suited for SnapChat.

What matters most is that your email style works for you. If not, you can join the ranks of the Email Frustrated.

The Email Frustrated

This person (and I’m one of these) is a hybrid of Filterer/Filer, Perfectionist and Romantic.  We spend all our time searching for a better email program that can solve our email management problems because we save too many and still can never find anything when we need it.  If you have a recommendation, I’m still looking!

Lim, M. S. C., Hocking, J. S., Aitken, C. K., Fairley, C. K., Jordan, L., Lewis, J. A., et al. (2012). Impact of Text and Email Messaging on the Sexual Health of Young People: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66(1), 69-74.