What Your Email Inbox Count Says About You

The Atlantic

What's the number of unread emails—right now, at this moment, without changing anything—in your inbox? That would be 3,487 in the case of Jen here; 1 in the case of Rebecca. More about what that means in a second, but first, a bit of backstory: The New Yorker's Silvia Killingsworth has embarked on an exploration into the subject of what she dubs in her headline as "Zero Dark Inbox," or having absolutely zero unread emails in one's inbox. She writes, "I have four e-mails in my inbox right now, but I’m aiming for that number to be zero. Like many practitioners of the 'Inbox Zero' system, I treat my inbox like a to-do list, with each e-mail representing a task...." She's adhering to a system created by Merlin Mann, a lifehacker and proponent of Getting Things Done, which is essentially the digital version of opening all your letters (what letters?) and bills when you receive them and dealing with them in whatever way you need as opposed to just setting them aside and waiting for the bill collectors to start bugging you before you pay up (not that we would do that, of course). 

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Killingworth took on the pursuit of Inbox Zero for herself, which she calls "exhilarating and terrifying"—fortunately, like many a process-and-detail-oriented person, "I am addicted to the gratification that comes from tidying up," she writes. Inbox Zero is a coping mechanism, a way to move on with conversations throughout the day; on the down side, entire threads may be forgotten, no longer staring you in the face. "And what about when you actually reach Inbox Zero? It doesn’t feel like winning. It feels like staring into the abyss," she explains. But there are a group of like-minded or attempting-to-be-like-minded commiserators with whom you can share your attempts to get there, so that's fun, sort of like a support group. 

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But if Killingsworth and her ilk, wholeheartedly and diligently attempting to get to Zero, are one example of an email-lifestyle, what are the others? We undertook a brief investigation of the staff of The Atlantic Wire to find out What Our Inbox Numbers Say About Us (and therefore, perhaps, you too; remember our book readers diagnostic?). As for our unread email counts, here's what we found.

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The Email Nihilist. (Zero to 10 Unread Emails out of 4,788). Very nearly a Zeroist, our David Wagner is one of these, reporting that "the number of unread items in my inbox is currently at zero, though it usually hovers around three to ten." But what does this mean, exactly? He is an email nihilist, one who deletes practically willy-nilly, presuming the sender of said email is no one he cares about hearing from. "I love deleting automated emails without reading them, banishing them to cyber Hades without thinking twice," he says. Machiavellian! "I also love unsubscribing from pointless listservs and replying right away to emails that will only take a sentence or two of response," he adds. "That keeps things pretty manageable for me." 

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The Email Hoarder. (Zero Unread Emails, But Zero Deleted Emails Either). As exampled by our Esther Zuckerman, who says, "My relationship with email is weird in that I really don't delete anything, but I must have no unread messages or it drives me crazy. Therefore, I have 52,325 messages in my Gmail inbox. About a year ago my account was running out of space so I bought more. It's a disease. I'm an email hoarder."

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The Email Nostalgist. (3,487 Unread Emails, out of 27,896). This is Jen. I read, sometimes delete, and never archive, and my unread emails primarily come from a point in my life in which I was using a Blackberry that apparently I didn't sync with gmail—so while I did at least look at those emails, they never marked as read. This number goes up, over time, because occasionally I'll still forget to read an email or won't delete it and then it gets washed up into the overall tide of messages. Every once in a while I'll go on a deleting (or deletion-consideration) spree, and when I do it's like a walk down email-memory lane. For example, did you know that in May of 2009 Neil Patrick Harris was at M&M’s World in Times Square to launch a program for Mars called the “Real Chocolate Relief Act,” for which he gave away thousands of free chocolate candy bars for the greater good of society? Those are memories that I'd never get back if I deleted them.  

The One in Email Denial. (Unknown out of 20,000). Matt Sullivan, who has an inbox of messages numbering some 20,000, confesses, "I turned off the unread count to make myself feel better."

The Enlightenment Email Inboxer. (Zero, always zero, out of less than 1,000). Our Connor Simpson explains, "I sometimes feel like I'm the only person who keeps a disciplined inbox, you inbox zero celebrators. To you it is some unattainable goal, while for me, it a common day. I've reached inbox enlightenment. Bliss is routine. I can maintain my Utopian inbox because I am furious with the 'delete' button. I don't know your pain, plebes. I am an inbox demi-god." Pushed for clarification on his methods, he says, "I delete things pretty much as they come in. I only keep emails that come from real people, and occasionally a Google alert I find hilarious. Inbox zero is a regular thing for me. The way some people talk I should consider that a personal achievement, so sometimes I put it on my resume."

The E-mail Neat-Freak. (1 Unread Email out of 50). Rebecca here. I don't like waste, not in my inbox, and not even in my archive. I delete almost everything, unless there is very big percent chance I will need it again, in which case it gets archived. The 50 special emails that get that prime inbox real-estate are either the most important things ever (insurance information), or events that haven't happened yet (trips, weddings, plans with friends). Those, I keep as read, unless they must get done ASAP. (My current single unread email is a reminder to myself to buy "PRESENTS.") The number is manageable enough for me to go through from time to time. Once an email in the pile is no longer relevant to my life, it either gets deleted or archived, according to the rules stated above. 

The E-mail Destroyer. (Zero Unread Emails out of 8,590). Though Alex Abad-Santos has a soft-spot for somewhere near 9,000 of his messages, when he gets an e-mail that doesn't warrant attention he has no heart. "I delete crap as soon as it comes in," he said. "My life changed when I found out the 'is:unread' search could let you find everything you haven't read in Gmail." (He nuked those puppies.) 

The E-mail Chaos Lover. (6,892 Unread Emails out of 20,566). Elspeth Reeve has a lot of unread and read emails, but she is okay with that. "For awhile I'd go on deleting purges to get it below 2,000. I've sort of given up on that," she said. Now, she has a new way of life. "I'm at peace with my overwhelmedness. I let it flow over me like a river."

Just Reasonably Organized. (Zero unreads out of 4,963 personal emails). Richard Lawson tells us, "I try to keep my work email as tidy as possible, by carefully deleting useless things and making sure I've replied to everything that needs replying. My personal email is, sadly, another story. I don't let anything stay 'unread'—the sight of any bright, bold black lingering in my Gmail inbox gives me agita—but I don't archive like I used to, all the labels I made when I was young and ambitious and new to Gmail have gone unused for a half-decade, and plenty of junk remains in my inbox next to very important, very much forgotten real emails. This is due mostly to laziness, but there's also a bit of a packrat mentality in play—I can't delete the email that told me so and so was following me on Twitter, can I? That was a big day! So there those little announcements stay, nestled between a low balance alert from my bank and an unanswered email from my mother asking me if I'm coming home for Thanksgiving. (I did, dear reader.)"

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