The Pandora Effect: The Psychological Value of an Empty Inbox

An inbox which is full to the brim is (for me, at least) a stress-generating liability. There is too much undefined work lurking in the pile of unread and read-but-unhandled messages. The read-but-unhandled messages are the worst culprits. Unhandled does not mean that you have not completed the work that the message defines, it means that you have not yet decided what work the message requires of you. Once you’ve decided and recorded what actions you need to take, it’s no longer “stuff”, and you can get rid of it (file it or delete it). It’s very tempting to scan a message and not decide what to do about it. You’ll revisit such messages quite a few times, until they are buried too deep under other “stuff”, and will probably not resurface until it’s too late. You then start to approach your inbox with apprehension — who knows what is lurking in there…

A number of SpeedFiler users have quite emotionally told me about the part SpeedFiler has played in helping them get out of this situation. For example:

I just wanted to share with you the fact that I used SpeedFiler over the past three days to shrink my inbox size from 1200 messages to 50. The first 400-500 messages went relatively easily, but the remaining got harder and harder as the number shrank (each successive filtering gets harder). SpeedFiler was absolutely critical in easing the burden. I couldn’t have done it using Outlook’s basic “Move to Folder” interface.

The psychological benefit of shrinking an inbox cannot be underestimated. I now know all issues I need to respond to, including issues from several weeks ago. The noise is gone — I can see the trees.

I now have to unlearn/relearn new skills — handle the messages as they arrive, don’t leave them in the inbox (if possible) to say “I’ll handle it some other time”.

SpeedFiler is not just about filing messages, it is just as much about making it easy to get them out of the way, so that your vision is not clouded by unprocessed “stuff”. It gives you a gentle push by encouraging and prompting you to file your messages, but you still have to deal with the “hard” part: deciding how to handle each message.

While using SpeedFiler on his email mountain, this person also figured out one of the basic principles of GTD: process a message when you first read it. By the time you close the message, you should have decided how it affects you:

  • Is it actionable? If so, what’s the next action? (–> do it now OR add to task list/calendar OR delegate it to someone else)
  • Do I need to keep this? If so, where does it belong?

These are seemingly easy decisions, but they force us to recognize reality, which is difficult for some of us to face, so we are tempted to let the message remain in the inbox.

If you get into the habit of processing your email in this way, your inbox will cease to be a Pandora’s Box, however full it might get while you’re concentrating on other things. You will now be in complete control: your inbox will be working for you, and not vice versa.

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One response to “The Pandora Effect: The Psychological Value of an Empty Inbox

  1. http://look-see.orla.org/

    In Australia, we have cracked the 4D nut good and proper. Take a look.

    Great blog Itzy!

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