The Atlantic

A Behavioral Economist Tries to Fix Email

Inbox maintenance was taking up a lot of Dan Ariely’s time, so he decided to study it as he would anything else.
Source: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty

Can anything be done to make people happier with their jobs? What can prevent people from overeating? Will people like beer with balsamic vinegar in it just because they’ve been told it contains a “secret ingredient”?

These are some of the questions that Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, has studied in his research over the years, which spans in scope from the weighty to the quotidian. He has attempted to puzzle out the intricacies of human motivation and decision making, and two threads that come up often in his research are why people so often make choices that leave them worse off, and how tweaking small things might ward off needless, irrational suffering.

So when he realized that reading and sending emails was consuming an ever-expanding portion of his time—Ariely regularly receives hundreds of emails a day, excluding spam—he wondered if there were something he and others could be doing differently in managing their online correspondence. What small behavioral tricks could he deploy to make the whole ordeal less stressful?

Everybody recognizes how much we are destroying productivity with the current [way we] email,” Ariely told me. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates that knowledge workers spend a little over a quarter of their workdays managing email, and Ariely

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