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Tame your inbox with the psychology of email

(MoneyWatch) Every day, it seems, someone has some new advice for how to manage your email, and usually that includes adding a tool to your inbox to better control the fire hose of messages coming your way. We're no exception; personally, I consider my drive to tame my inbox almost as bad of an addition as the email itself. Of course, few of these tools or strategies ever work as planned, and perhaps that's because your email problem is at least part psychological, not technological.

That's the contention of the BBC. In a recent story, called Email: A psychological defence course, Tom Stafford explains four key psychological principles that hold us hostage to our email. It's a fascinating read, and recognizing these traits in ourselves may well help us to overcome our email addiction.

Here are the three psychological characteristics that keep us bound to our email:

Reciprocity. Humans have an innate desire to "pay back" other people for their actions. If someone gives you a gift, you feel the desire to return something in kind. The same hold true for email; because email hold social information, each email drives you to want to participate in the conversation and reciprocate email, even if it's not especially relevant or important to you to do so. Says Stafford, "Reciprocity means that each email is an invitation to a social encounter, and you know what that means -- more emails sent back to you in reply."

Irregular rewards. Our brain loves rewards; it's how it knows that it's making your body do the right things. And getting email is a form of reward since email is a social glue. Getting mail is proof to your brain that you're valued in society. Even if it's just an ad from Amazon. But there's more to it than that. We're wired to prize irregular rewards most of all. If we perform the same task over and over, and only occasionally and randomly get rewarded for it, we are more inclined to do it again in hopes of getting that reward. And that's exactly how email works. You might click the "check mail" button 100 times a day, but email only arrives a quarter of the time. The solution? Set firm rules about only dealing with email a few times a day.

Hyperbolic discounting. Essentially, this means that you're wired to value things that are closer in time more than things that are more distant. If you're offered $100 today or $200 a year from now, you're likely to make the poor choice of taking the lesser money now. Similarly, you value email because it's fresh and new, even if it's not especially important or valuable. The test: Go on vacation for a week and then review all the messages you missed when you return. You'll find very few of them are of any actual value, despite the relative priority you would have given to managing those same messages in the moment. According to Stafford, "Email delivered with a half-hour delay would be easier to judge at its true value, and so be far less distracting."

Photo courtesy Flickr user bluemoponart

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