Your mailbox is almost full

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
December 1st, 2014

When it comes to life’s little annoyances, right up there with greenhead flies on the beach and that wad of cotton in the aspirin bottle, is the email message that threatens to immobilize your workday, “Your mailbox is almost full.” Of course, that’s only one way of looking at the situation. If my automatic thoughts ran in a more positive direction, I would just be grateful for the reminder, prune the mailbox and get on with my day.

Past experience, however, has taught me that this is not as easy as it may sound. Maybe it has something to do with my simplistic ideas about the way email works, which are based more on how I would like it to work than on any real knowledge of the digital world.

The content of the “almost full message” tells me that I have used 477 megabytes of my allotted storage space of 485.  No problem there, I reason. I still have eight left. I can probably clear this up by simply deleting the warning message along with a half dozen more of them that came in over the past month before I thought it was time to take this seriously. A few clicks of the mouse and I am ready for whatever the day may bring.

Your mailbox is almost full. This is not what I expected to see one day later. So much for deleting the warning messages. Even so, I must have made some progress in freeing up more space in my mailbox. Another click of the mouse tells me the bar hasn’t receded by a single millimeter. It hovers just a hair’s breadth from the full line and the numbers on the screen haven’t changed; there are still eight free megabytes, the same as yesterday. Okay, I admit that my grand strategy involved more than a little wishful thinking. Now it’s time to get serious and I begin by looking at the big picture.

I have 6,724 messages in my in-box and another 5,362 among the sent items and I have saved every one of them for a reason. The problem is I can’t match the reasons to the items. Some of these mailbox poachers are here because they contain contact information for people I will want to get in touch with about something or other sooner or later. Yes, this is vague and not much help in the sorting process.

Other items survived earlier purges because they conveyed requests that I carried out, attempted to carry out before I was interrupted by the arrival of a more urgent email, or forgot about entirely. Please accept my apology if your request was in this last category. There were very few of these, honest, and even if yours was among them, I will never admit it.

Other emails hang on because they come with important documents attached. The little paperclip icon flushes them out of hiding but gives me no idea what they contain. Here it is useful to sort the incoming emails by sender and the sent items by recipient. Add your own mental sorting to this electronic process and you can analyze your messages by category of correspondents. This yields categories for administration, colleagues, current and past students, and the always popular miscellaneous crowd reminding us to Brush Up on Statistics and Stop Hair Loss Now.

There are emails from the boss, always to be taken seriously, with attachments that usually announce the beginning of a new policy or procedure. You will definitely want to save these documents so you can refer to specific paragraphs for the answers to questions contained in emails from people in the other categories. These are the folks who thought they could get away with deleting these attachments.

Emails to and from colleagues are hard to purge when they come with attachments that are often clinical documents essential in conducting your work. You certainly would not want to delete drafts of reports that current interns and trainees send for your review or your wise suggestions for revision. This is especially true if you suspect that you will never be able to remember what you suggested in the first place. Former students send licensing forms so you can attest to their training and occasionally news about their professional and family lives, both joys in their own way never to be lost or discarded.

It is important at this point not to become discouraged by your bulging mailbox and to give yourself credit for the correspondence you did manage to delete as soon as you discovered it was of no earthly use. In other words, if you can’t restructure your filing system, then at least restructure your thinking about what it means to have approximately 12,000 pieces of mail jamming your information superhighway.

For starters, just remember it could have easily been twice that amount. Rejoice that you eliminated on sight the notification of a system outage temporarily affecting all communication with Lake Wobegon Community Mental Health Center. Celebrate discarding those mass mailings on which you were included out of courtesy and give thanks that you no longer have the flyer announcing the 2010 Mothers Day flower sale in the lobby.

Despite my best efforts, the cold, hard reality of an almost full mailbox would not go away and soon cut me off completely from the digital community. No longer able even to send an urgent plea to the help desk, I somehow remembered the tricks of archiving mail and double deleting what you thought you had already discarded. With a few more clicks of the mouse, I was back in business. At least until next time.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

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