Email inbox stressing you out? Track and find patterns

Mark Wilson at QS15 - The Quantified Self conference (photo: Magnus Nilsson)

You get more email than you can handle? Are you stressed that you have tough tasks that remain unanswered? You are not alone. Mark Wilson put numbers to the stress.

At the QS15 conference developer Mark Wilson held a presentation of a multi-year project in which he tried to get a picture of how he handles emails and why he feels that email inbox is stressing him out.

Mark works at Yelp and he gets, as others in the industry, very many emails. It can be anything from important messages to those where the recipient receives a copy because “it might be good if you also have heard this.”

In this case it is not so much about the number of emails, but the management of incoming messages. Mark Wilson felt stressed out by the notion that trivial tasks were quickly taken care of while difficult questions remained unattended.

The basis of this is that I am a very undisciplined person. I have tried to lift out the important things from emails and make to-do lists, but the lists have a tendency to end up as graveyards. In the back of my mind I know that I’ll still look up the mail.

Through a simple script Mark started to track his emails and discussion threads. In retrospect, you can see different patterns.

  • The clearest patterns is that most small items were handled within six hours. Generally, Mark is pretty quick in responding to and taking care of small issues.
  • The pile of really important emails is growing and is moved forwards.
  • Under certain periods the inbox consists only of important cases, that Mark avoids (and the stress increases.)
  • Even if tasks are unattended, Mark checks his email really, really often.

I assumed that the number of emails would give a statistical picture of my stress, but actually it was my behavior that caused stress.

When Mark in 2015 began to refine the data collection, it was initially just to get cooler graphs. But it gave rather distressing insights into how his real relation to harvest email looks like:

I thought I was bad at emails, but I was addicted to email!

For Mark, the experiment gave no solution to the problem; he describes himself as continued undisciplined. But by putting numbers to – and find patterns in – the problem he has got an overview of the actual situation. And that makes it possible to find solutions.

Read more in Mark Wilson’s blog post Three Years of Logging My Inbox Count.

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