Email Overload: Pavlov’s Dogs and Your Inbox

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Ivan Pavlov, in which he determined that certain reflex responses — like a dog salivating before his normal mealtime — occur conditionally based on one’s previous experiences. We believe there is something to his research that can be applied to email.

Consider these questions:

  • Have you ever sat in a location where you knew you didn’t have Internet connectivity, and found yourself clicking send/receive in Outlook just to try and get at your new email?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself checking for new email multiple times in a minute?
  • Is your BlackBerry the last thing you look at at night, and the first thing you pick up in the morning?

We have come to the conclusion that there is something deeply imprinted on our human nature that has designed us with a need to communicate. Communication can take many forms: in person, via phone, via cell phone, via instant messaging, via Facebook, or via email, to mention a few. For many of us in the corporate world, sitting in front of Microsoft Outlook (or your favorite email client) fills that need to communicate, to feel included, or to feel relevant. We tell our colleagues to “loop me in” or to “copy me,” and otherwise ask to be included on communication that we may care about, or may not.

Set against that backdrop, think of the many days where your inbox has become a frenzy of emails, reply-alls, questions, comments, and flames. Your adrenaline is flowing, and you can barely keep up.

Then consider the times when your inbox traffic has died down. You sit there, half-expecting the deluge to start any moment, feeling guilty about the many other things you could be doing. For whatever reason, though, you can’t keep Outlook closed for any length of time.

Crazy, we know. But we believe that — much as Pavlov’s dogs salivate for that next dish of food — many of us are almost addicted to that next new message that arrives in our inbox.

Have you checked your inbox lately?

David Sengupta

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