Pavlov’s Inbox

Manage senders, not emails.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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I use Pavlov’s Inbox to man­age my incom­ing emails.

I’m not a fan of Inbox Zero. I get the gen­er­al idea behind the pop­u­lar email pro­ductiv­ity sys­tem, but it’s not for me. 

I favour anoth­er approach:

  • Manage senders, not emails.

Therefore, I use a pro­act­ive sys­tem based on oper­ant con­di­tion­ing to reward or pun­ish inbound email senders. 1There is, of course, the issue of spam, unau­thor­ised soli­cit­a­tion, and point­less social net­work noti­fic­a­tions. However, these should be filtered, not per­son­ally man­aged.

I call it Pavlov’s Inbox.

Here we go:

What Is Pavlov’s Inbox?

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Pavlov’s Inbox

Most email pro­ductiv­ity sys­tems (e.g. Inbox Zero and sim­il­ar sys­tems) focus on struc­ture and effi­ciency. Such sys­tems run the risk of reward­ing unfa­vour­able sender behaviours.

  • If you allow, your inbox can eas­ily become oth­er people’s agenda for your time.

Pavlov’s Inbox is a sys­tem built around the psy­cho­lo­gic­al idea that your inbox prob­lems aren’t email prob­lems — they’re sender problems. 

Pavlov’s Inbox assumes that you can influ­ence the beha­viours of those send­ing you emails — via conditioning.

  • Reward favour­able email senders. Reward senders by reply­ing swiftly and doing as much work as possible.
  • Punish unfa­vour­able email senders. Punish senders by politely push­ing work back to where it came from.

The typ­ic­al res­ult of Pavel’s Inbox is that you quickly get more and more good emails from favour­able senders and few­er and few­er bad emails from unfa­vour­able senders.

  • The basic rule of beha­vi­our­al psy­cho­logy is that you get more of what you reinforce.

How To Reward Favourable Senders

  • Reply swiftly and thoughtfully.
  • Eliminate their work by put­ting in work yourself.
  • Include praise or oth­er pos­it­ive reinforcement.
  • Express an interest in their work.

How To Punish Unfavourable Senders

  • De-pri­or­it­ise their emails (let them wait).
  • Instead of doing work, push work back.
  • Ask them to qual­i­fy their requests.
  • Question the valid­ity of their reasoning.

Please note that the pun­ish­ing aspect should be executed in a socially viable man­ner (since being con­front­a­tion­al or aggress­ive as “pun­ish­ment” is likely det­ri­ment­al to your pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion).

Learn more: Pavlov’s Inbox

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The Power of Conditioning

In clas­sic­al con­di­tion­ing, psy­cho­lo­gist Ivan Pavlov made dogs sal­iv­ate by hear­ing the sound of a tri­angle. Every time he fed the dogs, he played the sound. Soon, he could play the sound to eli­cit the dogs’ phys­ic­al response (sal­iv­a­tion) — without the food. 2Classical con­di­tion­ing. (2023, January 17). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​l​a​s​s​i​c​a​l​_​c​o​n​d​i​t​i​o​n​ing

In oper­ant con­di­tion­ing (also called instru­ment­al con­di­tion­ing), the strength of an exist­ing beha­viour is mod­i­fied by rein­force­ment or pun­ish­ment. 3Operant con­di­tion­ing. (2023, January 13). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​e​r​a​n​t​_​c​o​n​d​i​t​i​o​n​ing

So, where clas­sic­al con­di­tion­ing eli­cits an invol­un­tary beha­vi­our­al response (“reflexes”), oper­ant con­di­tion­ing mod­i­fies exist­ing beha­viour (“vol­un­tary”).

Both meth­ods modi­fy beha­viour by con­di­tion­ing, and the dis­tinc­tion between these two approaches isn’t clear-cut. While sal­iv­a­tion can be seen as a “reflex,” want­ing treats des­pite not being hungry has ele­ments of being a vol­un­tary beha­viour. And modi­fy­ing beha­viour to seek rein­force­ment act­ively or escape pun­ish­ment can be more or less unconscious.

To affect inbox beha­viours, we wish to modi­fy exist­ing beha­viours through rein­force­ment or pun­ish­ment (oper­ant con­di­tion­ing) but do it dis­cretely so that the beha­viours become reflexes (clas­sic­al conditioning). 

How To “Punish” Bad Senders

If you always reply to emails promptly and with added value, some senders will quickly pick up on this — and send you more emails of the same type. In some cases, this is desir­able, but not always. 

What if people take advant­age of your prompt replies? The Inbox Zero sys­tem makes no such distinction.

For many emails land­ing in your inbox, you must push back against the senders — by cre­at­ing social dis­com­fort for them.

So, you keep reward­ing senders of favour­able emails by com­ply­ing swiftly. If someone asks you to do some­thing and you — for whatever reas­on — want to do it, you do it.

This beha­viour on your part will increase your chances of get­ting more of these favour­able emails.

But how do you “pun­ish” senders of unfa­vour­able emails?

  • Push back on unfa­vour­able emails by prompt­ing the senders to do extra work before you agree to con­sider their requests.

By gently “pun­ish­ing” senders of unfa­vour­able emails, you’ll have to send a few extra emails at the begin­ning of rela­tion­ships. The idea: A little extra effort upfront, much less effort down the line.

Affiliate: I use Mailchimp as my default email list manager.

Example: The Unnecessary Meeting

My col­league “John” wants to chat, but I know from exper­i­ence that he will use every oppor­tun­ity to push his work onto my plate.

•••
To: Jerry
Subject: Meeting about X

Hi Jerry,

Can we have a meet­ing about X?

Kind regards,
John
•••
To: John
Subject: RE: Meeting about X

Hi John,

Please send an agenda detail­ing the decisions we need to make, and I’ll see if I can make it work.

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Meeting about X

Hi Jerry,

No need for an agenda, I think. I only need your input.

Kind regards,
John
•••
To: John
Subject: RE: Meeting about X

Hi John,

I get it, but I’ll need some back­ground. Can you assemble a doc­u­ment out­lining the scope and send me the pdf?

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Meeting about X

Hi Jerry,

No need for a back­ground doc­u­ment, either. I can brief you at the meet­ing.

Kind regards,
John
•••
To: John
Subject: RE: Meeting about X

Hi John,

All right, but please tell me in writ­ing what decisions we should make in this meet­ing. My work­load is massive right now and I must pri­or­it­ise action­able meet­ings.

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Meeting about X

Hi Jerry,

Okay, I’ll ask Charlotte instead if your work­load is that high.

Kind regards,
John

I’m not say­ing no to John, but I keep ask­ing him to do extra work before con­sid­er­ing his request. After some ini­tial back-and-forth, emails like this will cease.

Arguably, I could say no to John upfront, but that would turn him into a “work­place enemy” — and provide him with undis­put­able proof that I’m unwill­ing to aid a col­league in need. In most cases, this is a drama I can live without.

Read also: 7 Surefire Ways To Dominate Office Politics

Example: The Scope Creep

The cli­ent deal is final­ised and signed, but once the pro­ject is under­way, my cli­ent, Miranda, tries to get us to do more than we agreed.

•••
To: Jerry
Subject: Regarding the deliv­er­able

Hi Jerry,

We need the deliv­er­able two days earli­er. And we also need to add a couple more journ­al­ists to the out­reach. Can we make this work?

Kind regards,
Miranda
•••
To: Miranda
Subject: RE: Regarding the deliv­er­able

Hi Miranda,

I can check with the pro­duc­tion team and draft a brief pro­pos­al for the added effort.

Can you con­firm that you want me to pro­ceed? (Y/​N)

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Regarding the deliv­er­able

Hi Jerry,

Didn’t real­ise that it was going to cost extra. I think we’ll have to make do with the exist­ing scope.

No need to make any changes.

Kind regards,
Miranda
•••
To: Miranda
Subject: RE: Regarding the deliv­er­able

Hi Miranda,

No wor­ries, we’ll make sure to pro­ceed accord­ing to plan.

Kind regards,
Jerry

By push­ing work back on Miranda (mak­ing a prob­lem­at­ic budget decision), she opted not to ask us to work for free.

If Miranda had said yes, the email con­ver­sa­tion would have moved into the pile of favour­able emails. More import­antly, you’re unlikely to get unso­li­cited requests from Miranda in the future.

Example: The Free Lunch

An acquaint­ance is reach­ing out ask­ing if he can buy me lunch. It could be nice to catch up, but he’ll only talk about him­self and his business.

•••
To: Jerry
Subject: Lunch?

Hi Jerry,

Long time no see. I read your awe­some blog post on deep con­tent the oth­er day, and I’d love to pick your brain about a cool pro­ject I got going on.

Would you let me buy you lunch next week?

Kind regards,
Eric
•••
To: Eric
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Eric,

All is well. How are you? And thanks for check­ing out the blog.

Sounds intriguing. While I check my cal­en­dar for open­ings, could you put togeth­er a brief? When giv­ing advice to star­tups, I like to come pre­pared.

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Jerry,

Hey man, to be clear: this is not a brief. I just want to pick your brain over lunch.

Would love to catch up.

Kind regards,
Eric
•••
To: Eric
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Eric,

Sorry, I only advise cli­ents — or poten­tial cli­ents. It has to do with account­ab­il­ity and some oth­er leg­al stuff.

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Jerry,

Aha, I did­n’t know that. But we might be inter­ested in becom­ing your cli­ent down the line.

Kind regards,
Eric
•••
To: Eric
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Eric,

All right, I’ll see what I can do. In the mean­time, could you send an NDA (non-dis­clos­ure agree­ment)?

This is for both of our sakes. We don’t want to get in trouble for dis­cuss­ing sens­it­ive busi­ness inform­a­tion.

Thanks,
Jerry
•••
To: Jerry
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Jerry,

Hmm, sounds a bit like we aren’t ready yet. I just wanted to pick your brain over lunch, haha.

Kind regards,
Eric
•••
To: Eric
Subject: RE: Lunch?

Hi Eric,

No wor­ries, man. I love your star­tup idea and am sure you’re onto some­thing big. I’m here for you as soon as you’re ready to step it up to the next level.

Until then,
Jerry

By push­ing back on pro­fes­sion­al­ism, I’m for­cing Eric to say no first — which puts us back on equal footing.

More Emails Upfront, Less (But Better!) Emails Down the Line

You’re right if you think the “push­back approach” seems like more emails back and forth upfront. But you’re invest­ing in rela­tion­ships instead of a folder system.

Soon, your inbox will start filling up with the kind of emails you want instead of the emails oth­er people want to send you. Not only will you be more pro­duct­ive, but you’ll also be able to pro­duce more value.

  • Is Pavlov’s Inbox some­what “pass­ive-aggress­ive”?

Perhaps, per­haps not. If you feel uncom­fort­able, remem­ber that scope creep, unne­ces­sary meet­ings, and work­ing for free aren’t sus­tain­able in the long run.

And, if you’re still a fan of email pro­ductiv­ity sys­tems like Inbox Zero, don’t worry. Just cre­ate a folder named “Push Back.”

Signature - Jerry Silfwer - Doctor Spin

Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

PR Resource: Productivity Hacks

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 There is, of course, the issue of spam, unau­thor­ised soli­cit­a­tion, and point­less social net­work noti­fic­a­tions. However, these should be filtered, not per­son­ally managed.
2 Classical con­di­tion­ing. (2023, January 17). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​l​a​s​s​i​c​a​l​_​c​o​n​d​i​t​i​o​n​ing
3 Operant con­di­tion­ing. (2023, January 13). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​e​r​a​n​t​_​c​o​n​d​i​t​i​o​n​ing
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has

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