The Fundamental Theorem of Email

I can count on one hand the number of times my inbox has been empty in my life. If you are like me, your email inbox is the center of your organizational universe. It’s the main “to do” list, and when the emails start piling up unread or unprocessed, it creates anxiety. A whole industry has cropped up to address such angst by teaching people practical tactics for becoming more efficient with their time. While this is good and all, it doesn’t seem to address the Fundamental Theorem of Email: the rate you receive new email is directly proportional to the speed with which you reply. Some corollaries:

  • No matter how hard you try to keep your inbox clear, there is an equal and opposite force working to fill it up.
  • If you do happen to clear it, soon it will just fill up again.
  • If you stop answering emails entirely, eventually they will just stop coming in.
  • Each person has their own equilibrium point where the the incoming flow balances naturally with their desire for a clear inbox. (Mine is at about 20 emails)
  • The joy you receive from having a clean slate is always less than (and more fleeting than) the anxiety you feel trying to get there.
  • When you die, your inbox won’t be empty. (Okay, so I stole that one from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff)

I’m working on letting go of the anxiety about the situation and being happy with an average of 20. But then, by releasing the pressure won’t my average just go up, causing the anxiety to return?

  • Paul P

    Have you tried delaying your incoming email? If there are people who must have instant access to you I guess you can whitelist them on through. I found that simply waiting a week before I answer any given email (except on the monthly-or-so clean it all out days) works wonders to solve both the volume problem and the psychological problem.

  • I have tried the trick of only getting new email every, say hour or so. And I suppose I could change that delay to once a day/week/month, whatever. But then I’d need to whitelist some people, and it becomes a game of whom to whitelist, and other things to clutter the mind with. I’ve also tried the GTD practice of having folders to triage the processing itself (as opposed to the archiving which is traditionally how folders are used). But it doesn’t seem to work for me and I get more anxious about whether I’m overlooking something important since it’s hidden in a folder, or I become undisciplined and the system becomes worthless.

    I have a feeling I’m not alone in this regard. Thus, my approach is to change how I feel about the situation as opposed to change the situation to suit how I think I want to feel. The former may ultimately be easier to accomplish and far less elusive.