Manage Your Professional Inbox, Behavior Analysis Style

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

It is no secret that email runs most of our lives as we send and receive data in all forms via email.  Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a hot topic of debate and a discussion for another day.  However, since email is what it is, applied behavior analysis can help you manage your inbox behavior and (hopefully) the behavior of others as recipients.

Below are some tips on how to master your inbox using behavioral science, some of which have been translated from a recent article at

  1. Only use exclamation points, when you really mean it. Behavior analysts are masters of praise, and as part of that mastery of reinforcement, we know the power of tone, even in emails.  However, overusing the exclamation point can satiate the punctuation mark (if it serves as a conditioned reinforcer).  So, make sure to only use it, if the statement really warrants the mark.
  2. Be careful with confidential information. For practitioners in the healthcare industry, HIPAA is a way of life and working with systems that secure protected healthcare information is an absolute must.  The same holds true for educators with FERPA.  So if you are going to send someone an email, be careful of the information you include.
  3. Make sure your responses are timely, but not too timely. So many people end up on one end of the spectrum or the other, respond immediately or respond next week.  Responses to emails can be very reinforcing for the behavior of the person that sent the original message.  So it is important to not create expectations that you will respond immediately for every email or you could find yourself spending your entire day responding to emails and not getting much done.  Some emails, however, need to be responded to immediately based on their content, so it is important to make that distinction when responding.  Remember you are consequating behavior when you respond, so be mindful or what schedule of reinforcement you are placing each person’s behavior on.  Try responding immediately only to critical emails and type the email responses for the other messages, but don’t send them until later that day.
  4. Use prompts to save yourself and the other person time. I see email strings going back and forth between two, three, or sometimes and entire group of colleagues just thanking each other several times or with phrases such as “Oh, ok”.  Some of these phrases are important to maintain relationships using pleasant colloquial interactions, however, overusing these phrases can not only be time consuming, but also lose their reinforcing power if used for every single email and both parties can become lost in the back-and-forth of who should end the thank you string and who should not.  Try using a prompt, such as “No reply necessary, but thank you for everything!”
  5. Make sure your subject line is clear. Discrimination is important, it is especially important in the subject heading.  If you send out several emails to the same person repeatedly and use the exact same subject heading, people may get confused and mixed messages.  This can result in miscommunications and a loss of business or worse yet, the relationship.   Help your reader discriminate between emails by using proper subject headings.
  6. Identifying (and appreciating) jokes in emails is difficult, so, don’t use jokes in emails. Telling jokes when someone is right in front of you and getting them to laugh (at the joke) and appreciate your humor is hard enough as it is.  Not being able to identify or appreciate a joke could have many explanations ranging from poor stimulus control to a strong conditioning history or just complex verbal behavior.  Long story short, don’t make things harder on yourself by trying to be funny in an email, they may not get it or worse yet, get offended and not want to do business with you anymore.  Keep it professional and on task.
  7. Be efficient with your email, response effort matters. When creating a work email to send out to someone think about the other person and get to your point quickly.  Make sure to not make the recipient of your message get lost in the minutia of the message, get to your point quickly and lower the response effort, they will thank you later.
  8. Be-careful with auto responder. Simply put:  auto-responder can place email messaging behavior on extinction.  If I email you (behavior), expecting a reply from the actual recipient of the message (reinforcement for my behavior), but instead I get “Thank you for sending me a message, your message is important to me and I will respond in a timely fashion” you are not reinforcing my emailing behavior, you are placing it on extinction.  Use it when you are out on vacation and really can’t (or don’t want to) answer emails.  The rest of the time, respond back yourself and not the email robot.
  9. Use behavioral skills training with your staff. We all know what happens when you assume, so don’t assume that your staff are fluent with modern email etiquette.  Make sure to give your staff instructions on how to respond appropriately to email, model that behavior in your own emails, and make sure to give them timely feedback on their emailing behavior.  And don’t worry they will get plenty of time to rehearse sending emails daily.  Also, this is behavior that will contact natural contingencies quickly as they interact with others.
  10. Your email behavior says a lot about you. Personal branding these days is very important and in behavioral terms we consider branding to be pairing.  So don’t pair yourself with inappropriate, unprofessional, or disorganized email behavior.  Make sure you represent yourself well and pair yourself as a conditioned reinforcer when you send messages through cyberspace.  Here are some helpful hints to ensure you stay professional:
    1. Use complete words and sentences. Don’t use short-hand, emoticons, or slang, unless its business slang…even then.
    2. Use professional greetings. Starting your email with salutations such as “Hey, dude, yo, & what’s up are not professional and may end up turning off a prospective client or collaborator.  Make things easy on yourself and start your email with, “Hi______(enter their name here).
    3. Proofread your emails. Nothing says “I am not professional” more than poor punctuation typos.  Take the extra 15 seconds to fix typos (every email provider highlights them), trust me its worth the time.

How do you manage your own email as a behavior analyst?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

AVV_MG_9885Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA is a graduate of Florida International University and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2008. Adam is the founder and CEO of World Evolve, Inc., a behavioral organization located in south Florida. Adam has been working in the field of applied behavior analysis for over 10 years and has experience working with children and adults with varying disabilities. Adam was a member of the local review committee in Miami, Florida for over three years and is currently a member of the behavior analysis and practice committee (BAPC) for the state of Florida. Adam also currently serves an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Florida International University where he has been teaching undergraduate courses in behavior analysis since 2009. Adam is also the co-founder of two public benefit corporations, namely, The Code Of Ethics for Behavioral Organizations (COEBO) and the Miami Association for Behavior Analysis (MiABA). Adam’s experience has extended beyond the clinical realm and into the business world as he has been responsible for creating several new businesses with and without partners in various industries. Adam’s current focus is on business ethics and technological applications of Behavior Analysis.  You can contact him at [email protected].

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