Managing the constant flow of incoming messages is a daily challenge faced by knowledge workers who use technologies such as e-mail and other digital communication tools. This study focuses on the most ubiquitous of these technologies, e-mail, and unobtrusively explores the ongoing inbox-management activities of thousands of users worldwide over a period of 8 months.
The study describes the dynamics of these inboxes throughout the day and the week as users strive to handle incoming messages, read them, classify them, respond to them in a timely manner, and archive them for future reference, all while carrying out the daily tasks of knowledge workers. It then tests several hypotheses about the influence of specific inbox-management behaviors in mitigating the causes of e-mail overload, and proposes a continuous index that quantifies one of these inbox-management behaviors. This inbox clearing index (ICI) expands on the widely cited trichotomous classification of users into frequent filers, spring cleaners, and no filers, as suggested by Whittaker and Sidner (1996). We propose that the ICI allows shifting the focus, from classifying users to characterizing a diversity of user behaviors and measuring the relationships between these behaviors and desired outcomes.