Three Years of Logging my Inbox
Mark Wislon notices that his inbox correlates directly with his stress level. After passively tracking this for three years, he decides to actively shift how he sees his inbox account and learns how he's controlled (and been controlled by) this stream of angst. He also discovers a very important life lesson: he's addicted to email.
Three Years of Logging my Inbox
Hi, my name is Mark Wilson. I’m going to talk about logging three years of my inbox count. So the reason I started tracking this number has to do with this relationship I noticed I had developed with my inbox. Not unlike most people, I treat my inbox as this cinque for all the input that comes into my life from the outside world.
And most of this input I can deal with pretty easily, but there’s a large chunk of that input that implies something that’s going to take a while, something I need to think about. So for those things my response is generally just leave it there.
The problem is I’m not a particularly disciplined person, so this pile of things I’ve left there grows over time. And these are the things I’ve decided I want to do, just not today. So this pile of things is really just a log of the commitments that I know I’ll get to eventually because I’ll be checking my email.
I’ve learnt to exploit this dynamic, so I’ll email myself things that I want to look into or things that I want to do later. And so, it comes to be this log of all these things that I know I want to do but I’m not doing them right now.
As a result, my inbox count has come to be this sort of barometer for my stress level. When I log into my inbox and I see these one or two scenarios, 128 messages says, you failed to forget another day to be a responsible adult. And the second one is more like a fleeting vision of Nirvana.
So, understanding this dynamic, one day a few years ago I decided to write a Python script that just logs this number in the background. It logs into my email every day at 1AM on my behalf and just tracks how many threads are there. It produces a log file that looks like this.
More recently I expanded the scripts, so rather than just count as here I’m logging detailed information about, like which threads are in my inbox, how long they’ve been there, what subjects they have, etc. So, I have this hourly log of all the emails that’s in my inbox.
So, this is the last three years of my inbox count. This is the shape of my inbox, and I’ve highlighted in purple all the times where my inbox reached a local maximum before decline of at least 20 messages relative to the average of the following few days. And the first thing I found, which I was expecting is that these purges happened regularly. Everyone has a threshold to how much mental clutter that they can tolerate, and these are moments where my threshold was exceeded, and my stress peaked and then it dissipated.
And the reason I started tracking this data in the first place was all based on this assumption that my inbox is this passive measure. It passively tells the story of what else is going on in my life. There are these things happening and at the same time over here, I’m managing my inbox, and data on how well I manage it can tell some interesting stories about what was going on.
And those stories are interesting, but actually looking back on this data for the first time in three years what’s more interesting to me is, why was my baseline so high?
So, you can see at the far right of this graph where I finally hit inbox zero. So, this was the beginning of this year, I was visiting home, I was in between travels and I decided I was finally going to do it. I’m going to hit inbox zero, and as you can imagine I thought this was going to be a major life event for me. So, naturally I made a video time-lapse of it, put it on YouTube. And when I finally did hit zero it felt amazing. I was like, I can die happy now. As long as no one emails me in like the next 10 minutes.
But sure enough as you can see it did creep back up. Now starting from this blank slate of inbox zero and with this more detailed data, I can start to the dynamics to try and examine why is this happening.
The first thing I looked at was email age. This was the same statistic inbox count but broken down into how old the messages in my inbox are. Blue is messages that I’ve received more recently, and the yellow to orange, to red is messages that’s been in my inbox for weeks or even months because this color scale is logarithmic.
So, you can see that the blue section never grows too big, and what that shows me is that I stay on top of these recent emails, while consciously avoiding older and important ones. And that’s the slow transition from yellow to orange to red for these emails that I’m just leaving there and ignoring.
And there is even this point in mid-April where nearly my entire inbox was consisted of emails that I was avoiding. There were no recent emails and I already knew intuitively that I was doing this. I think anyone that is inept at emails is doing this. But to see that it was happening so quickly after inbox zero and it was so severe really shocked me. And it got me wondering, how can I be so responsive with all these emails, and yet so inept with the more important things.
So, I started looking at the same idea of you know email age but inverted. So this is for every day the proportion of emails that I received on that day that were in my inbox for a short while, a long while, and obscene while. So green is emails that left my inbox within a few hours. And then the purplish ones, for example up here, are messages that I didn’t respond to for several days. So, there is this period at the beginning of April where about a quarter of the messages that I received on any given day ended up staying there for at least four days.
But the sobering conclusion of this graph is actually this giant green section, which shows that I’m depressingly responsive in dealing with trivial emails at the same time I’m procrastinating on anything that requires effort.
And you know, I knew that I could be neglectful with my responsibilities. I didn’t need a graph to tell me that, but to see that I’m doing that at the same time that I have this rapid response cycle really shocked me. It suggests that my unhealthy relationship with email is a lot darker than I originally thought. It got me wondering, how much time do I even spend on email.
So, I use this application called Time Sink. It’s just like RescueTime it just runs in the background and tracks what applications you are using on the computer. But unlike RescueTime, you have access to the raw data, so I can do computations like this.
So, for every 15-minute block of the day I computed a true/false value. Did I check Gmail at least once during that block or not? And this graph shows that for each block of the day, how many days from the same period of the two graphs that I just showed you fall into either category.
And the immediate conclusion of this graph is that email has become a compulsive routine for me. For virtually every 15-minute period of the day, is about 50/50 chance that I’m going to make it the whole 15 minutes before I reach for a hit at inbox.
And I’ve had many Internet addictions. With email it seems almost obvious. There is this operating conditioning between checking your emails and this uncertain promise of novelty. But even so it’s so obvious in hindsight I actually had no idea until I dug into this that I was addicted to email.
So, like I said, the reason I started tracking this data was actually because I expected it to be a passive record. You know, if I’m stressed out by my inbox count is because there are other things stressing me out and my inbox count is just reflecting it. But it turns out that my behavior is actually empowers my inbox count to terrorize me.
And the reason I started graphing this more detailed info was actually just to make that inbox zero-time lapse have more interesting data. But it turned out that the interesting data showed alarming trends about my relationship with email.
And my relationship with email I assumed all along that I was just bad at email. And certainly, this data does nothing to exonerate me of that. but the darker truth is that I’m actually addicted to email, and this escapes my awareness until I saw this.
So, I’m glad that I discovered this. I’ve already introduced a bunch of interventions to try and weaken the addictive link. But they say the first step is admitting that you have a problem, so the unexpected product of three years of logging my inbox count is saying here publicly, my name is Mark and I’m addicted to email.