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% 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.
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.
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. Read more…