The Inbox, Dr Pavlov and reactive working

There’s just no getting away from it, for most people at work email is the dominant communication channel, invariably accounting for more information, actions and expectations than conference calls and meetings combined. Therefore, we can not start to master our workload until we master the inbox.

The ruthless reality for many is that whilst they are still winning most days, they are surfing on the edge of chaos – juggling a number of lists (including their inbox, their note pads and their memory) and invariably not achieving what they set out to do on their way into work. The personal price of their victory is often very heavy. See my notes on the latest research into the increasing stress levels experienced in this recession

Far too many good people feel they are slaves to their inbox.

They feel that they ‘have’ to sit in there. Many who we work with admit initially that their inbox is yet another too-long To-Do list.

Lets be clear here, unless you are in a level 1 or 2 support role, you don’t need to have your in box open all the time. And if you are a level 1 or 2 support person there are better support management tools than the inbox to manage your workload anyway.

Because Dr Pavlov was right, most peoples’ inbox management is wrong.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his original work into studying the mechanisms underlying the digestive system in mammals. But it is not for this that he is famous. No, he is remembered for his experiments with dogs.

Pavlov’s discovery was that environmental events that previously had no relation to a given reflex (such as a bell sound) could, through experience, trigger a reflex (salivation). This kind of learnt response is called ‘Conditioned Reflex’, and the process whereby dogs or humans learn to connect a stimulus to a reflex is called ‘Conditioning’.

Pavlov’s dogs:
Environmental event > Bell:
Conditioned Reflex > Salivation
Environmental event > Email alert:
Conditioned Reflex > stop what you are doing and open the mail.

All we can truly manage is our focus and energy moment to moment and the horrible reality is that living in the inbox destroys both. See

See this post for the big difference between Multitasking and Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)
Finally, for those who compose their emails on the run, whilst attempting a couple of other things, check out this article on 10 ways to get your busy boss to action your emails now

What is your take on this, I’m curious to know; do drop me a comment below.


  1. Richard Maybury May 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Hi JJ, thanks for this. I thought it might appear next Thursday. This came out of a telephone conversation with Mark a few days ago. Unfortunately I have been misquoted in his first paragraph. As a quick asside – why is it that everyone says they have been misquoted, misrepresented or quoted out of context when they appear in the media?

    The main thrust of that part of our conversation was that, with massive amounts of data assaulting us every day, people invariably have a large number of open, unresolved and unstructured emails in their inbox which they treat as yet another To-Do list that they never get to the end of!. I will revisit my notes and post separately on this shortly.

    Hope you are well.

  2. JJBones May 22, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Richard, I saw you were quoted in The Times yesterday in Mark Hunter’s article: How to cope with a burgeoning workload.
    Did you really mean that most people spend most of their time procrastinating! I can’t believe you did. Sure, it is easy to have a number of issues (and emails) on the go at any one time but I’m not sure that’s procrastinating – it more about juggling and managing as best one can, sometimes with incomplete information and competing priorities, flying around the business at a rate of knots.

    I recognise the ‘Shout loudest’ syndrome – and perhaps that does cause me to drop what I think I should be working on but that’s not procrastinating. Procrastinating is writing this when I know I should be cracking on with the RFQ that’s sitting in front of me.

    Anyway, thanks for all your support.

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