This is a great thought on using e-mail effectively that I read at the end of Predictably Irrational…
“I THINK E-MAIL addiction has something to do with what the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner called “schedules of reinforcement.” Skinner used this phrase to describe the relationship between actions (in his case, a hungry rat pressing a lever in a so-called Skinner box) and their associated rewards (pellets of food). In particular, Skinner distinguished between fixed-ratio schedules of reinforcement and variable-ratio schedules of reinforcement. Under a fixed schedule, a rat received a reward of food after it pressed the lever a fixed number of times—say 100 times. (To make a human comparison, a used-car dealer might get a $1,000 bonus for every 10 cars sold.) Under the variable schedule, the rat earned the food pellet after it pressed the lever a random number of times. Sometimes it would receive the food after pressing 10 times, and sometimes after pressing 200 times. (Analogously, our used-car dealer would earn a $1,000 bonus after selling an unknown number of cars.) Thus, under the variable schedule of reinforcement, the arrival of the reward is unpredictable.
On the face of it, one might expect that the fixed schedules of reinforcement would be more motivating and rewarding because the rat (or the used-car dealer) can learn to predict the outcome of his work. Instead, Skinner found that the variable schedules were actually more motivating. The most telling result was that when the rewards ceased, the rats who were under the fixed schedules stopped working almost immediately, but those under the variable schedules kept working for a very long time. This variable schedule of reinforcement also works wonders for motivating people. It is the magic (or, more accurately, dark magic) that underlies gambling and playing the lottery. How much fun would it be to play a slot machine if you knew in advance that you would always lose nine times before winning once, and that this sequence would continue for as long as you played? It would probably be no fun at all! In fact, the joy of gambling comes from the inability to predict when rewards are coming, so we keep playing.
So, what do food pellets and slot machines have to do with e-mail? If you think about it, e-mail is very much like gambling. Most of it is junk and the equivalent to pulling the lever of a slot machine and losing, but every so often we receive a message that we really want. Maybe it contains good news about a job, a bit of gossip, a note from someone we haven’t heard from in a long time, or some important piece of information. We are so happy to receive the unexpected e-mail (pellet) that we become addicted to checking, hoping for more such surprises. We just keep pressing that lever, over and over again, until we get our reward. This explanation gives me a better understanding of my e-mail addiction, and more important, it might suggest a few means of escape from this Skinner box and its variable schedule of reinforcement.
One helpful approach I’ve discovered is to turn off the automatic e-mail-checking feature. This action doesn’t eliminate my checking, but it reduces the frequency with which my computer notifies me that I have new e-mail waiting (some of it, I would think to myself, must be interesting or relevant). Additionally, many applications allow users to link different colors and sounds to different incoming e-mail. For example, I assign every e-mail on which I’m cc’d to the color gray, and send it directly to a folder labeled “Later.” Similarly, I set my application to play a particularly cheerful sound when I receive a message from a source I’ve marked as urgent and important (these include messages from my wife, students, or members of my department). Sure, it takes some time to set up such filters, but having once gone to the trouble of doing so, I’ve reduced the randomness of the reward, made the schedule of reinforcement more fixed, and ultimately improved my life.”
Based on this article I started writing Inbox rules to color code my e-mails. I also disabled the notification of incoming e-mails except from a few distinct individuals. We’ll see how it goes.