Email identities

What your inbox says about you

As I glance at my phone, I see the number 18 in a red circle above my Gmail icon. I turn my phone back off and put it in my pocket. “Not now,” I think. “I can’t think about these yet.”

Later, I open my computer, look at the screen and assess how much effort cleaning out my inbox will be. I have glanced at the 45 emails, but haven’t dealt any of them. Some messages are completely irrelevant to me and others I really should have responded to three days ago. I take a deep breath, and click on the first one.

Email is a constant reminder of the fact that time keeps passing and responsibilities multiply regardless of how much I want to hit pause. Even if I take a day to forget about the demands of the world, as I did while I was on a retreat last weekend, the emails will be waiting for me when I return.

Most of the time they feel like a nuisance, or like little pests that need to be exterminated.

Emails are reminders of the obligations I have, tasks I should complete and problems I need to solve. Rarely do I get an email from a friend or family member who simply wants to check in. Most of the time I don’t enjoy dealing with them, but I can’t live without them.

And I know I’m not the only one. Nowadays, everyone has to deal with this problem in one way or another, and the way in which you do so says a lot about your personality.

If you were to look at my email inbox, you would learn a lot about me. You would be able to tell when I am having a busy week, because my inbox would be filled with pages of messages I’ve opened but haven’t addressed. You would also learn about my abandoned dreams — the listservs I remain a part of on the off chance that someday I’ll jump into conversation with a group I never joined. And you would be able to look back at the oldest emails I have — those I’ve kept because of their sentimental value. The deep recesses of my inbox are a time capsule of important moments — happy, sad and humorous.

I know some people who stay true to my old method of letting them all sit there, opened but uncategorized. I think this is a sign of a go-with-the-flow nature that likes to hold on to little pieces of life, because you never know what could be important.

Some people are even more laissez-faire, and let unopened emails sit around and inhabit the various pages of their inbox. They simply don’t care about that big number in parentheses on the left side of the screen. I admire their ability to stick it to the man.

Other people are the complete opposite. They don’t need folders because they delete all of their emails right after they open them. I think these people are better at living in the moment, and not worrying too much about holding on to the past. They are also a lot more decisive than I am.

The next time I have to come up with an ice breaker, I think I’ll ask people how they organize — or don’t organize — their email inbox. The way in which we deal with this ever-present reminder of the tasks that await us says a lot about who we are. Even though we each handle it differently, at least we are together in our love-hate relationship with these messages that keep on coming.

Kelly’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at

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