Pavlov’s Inbox

Manage senders, not emails.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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

I’m not a big fan of Inbox Zero. I get the general idea behind the popular email productivity system, but it doesn’t work.

I want to manage the senders, not their emails. 1There is, of course, the issue of spam, unauthorised solicitation, and pointless social network notifications. However, these should be filtered, not personally managed.

Therefore, I’ve devised an alternative system based on classical psychology.

I call it Pavlov’s Inbox.

Here we go:

What Is Pavlov’s Inbox?

Pavlovs Inbox - Evil Robot Dog - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
“A man’s best friend” (Midjourney V4).

Pavlov’s Inbox

Pavlov’s Inbox is an email system built around the idea that your inbox problems cannot be solved by more efficiently processing email (e.g. Inbox Zero and similar systems). Such systems will only reward unfavourable sender behaviours.

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

  • You reward the types of emails you want by replying swiftly and doing as much work as possible.
  • You punish the types of emails you don’t want by politely pushing work back onto the sender.

Pavlov’s Inbox system is based on psychological ideas on how to reward and punish email behaviours in a socially viable manner (being rude as “punishment” might only be detrimental to your professional reputation).

The operating principle of Pavlov’s Inbox is to a) reward favourable types of emails by minimising the amount of work required by the sender and b) punish unfavourable emails by maximising the amount of work required by the sender.

Read more: Pavlov’s Inbox

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.

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.

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).

The Concept of Work

If you always reply to emails promptly and with added value, the known group of senders will likely send you more emails of the same type. In some cases, this is desirable, but not always. The Inbox Zero system makes no such distinction.

If you allow it, your inbox can quickly become other people’s agenda for your time. It would be best if you found a way to push back against unfavourable emails—without creating social discomfort for yourself.

I love my work. Still, this doesn’t mean I want to do more work than necessary to complete a task or fulfil an objective.

In the context of Pavlov’s Inbox, “work” constitutes not craftsmanship or professional pride but administrative effort.

So, based on the concept of work in this context, you reward senders by simply complying with whatever type of work they’re asking of you. If someone asks you to do something and you—for whatever reason—want to do it, you do it.

And you do the work as fast as possible to minimise the time between the sender posing the question and the sender getting an affirmative response. This behaviour on your part will increase your chances of getting more of these favourable emails.

How do you “punish” senders of unfavourable emails … politely?

The answer is simple: Ask senders of unfavourable emails to do work for you before you consider doing work for them.

Examples of Polite Punishment

When gently “punishing” senders of unfavourable emails, you must send a few extra emails at the beginning of each new relationship. However, relationships are essential in business, and these initial interactions should be considered investments.

Read also: 7 Surefire Ways To Dominate Office Politics

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

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.
3 Operant conditioning. (2023, January 13). In Wikipedia.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


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