man stressed out by too much email. man stressed out by too much email. Email overload's got me like ... (Photo: pathdoc / Shutterstock)

Tired of your overloaded inbox? Science just fixed it

A behavioral economist was tired of being flooded with emails 24 hours a day. So he studied it, and found a solution.

How much time do you spend with your inbox every day?

You might not even realize it, but managing your email accounts (most people have several) is a huge time-suck. McKinsey, a business consulting firm, says that knowledge workers (that's people who spend much of their job thinking, like software engineers, architects, scientists, accountants and academics) spend an estimated 25 percent of their workdays managing email. And when you think about it, it's really no surprise. We get pinged 24 hours a day every time a new message comes through. Of those, only a select few are worth reading – but first we have to sift through the clutter (aka spam) to see it. It's a neverending cycle that makes even the most organized among us feel like hoarders.

And it was starting to make Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke University, a little nuts. The Israeli scientist and bestselling author is a consummate out-of-the-box thinker, so he went looking for a solution.

Dan Ariely hopes his new approach upends an industry set in its ways.Dan Ariely is trying to solve the email clutter epidemic. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

"Email has become a mix of blessing and evil in our lives," Ariely wrote in a recent blog post. "Blessing because it has become a broad communication channel for everything – for our friends, family, work and businesses. Evil because it constantly interrupts us in our daily lives. Moreover, we end up at the mercy of other people’s timelines. It’s your list on your computer, but the order of that list and when it comes depends on when somebody else decides to send you something."

So instead of submitting to the madness, he did what any proper scientist would do – he studied it. He conducted a survey of 1,500 people to find out how they'd ideally like to handle email. The biggest takeaway?

Show me the good stuff, hide the bad.

"When we asked our participants, the top four categories people would want were emails to be divided by being sent immediately (with notifications), by the end of the day, by the end of the week and – you guessed it – automatically deleted," Ariely said.

He concluded, then, that classifying emails based on when people need to deal with them was the most useful solution. "Instead of having one inbox that puts us at the mercy of other people’s timelines, maybe we need multiple inboxes that are sensitive to when something needs to be dealt with."

Great solution, right? Sure wish someone would make that happen.

Oh, he did. He helped create an app. It's called Filtr. And it's free to download in the App Store.

But like many thinking people, Ariely wasn't content to stop there. The professor also helped to build Shortwhale, a widget that lets users create their own page instructing others on how they prefer to receive emails. You can even express how you'd like the sender to word emails in the future, like "Go straight to the point."

For some users, Ariely admits that option might seem a little too passive-aggressive or put too much burden on the sender. But he personally loves knowing which of his recipients expect a reply from him, and which don't.

“Just imagine how much sense it would make if the person who sent you an email had a way to very quickly tell you that for this email, they need a response within a week, or ‘no response necessary,’” he told The Atlantic.


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Tired of your overloaded inbox? Science just fixed it
Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, used science to figure out a better way to declutter his email inbox.