Ask Ariely: On an Odorous Obstacle, Great Gift-giving, and Dealing with Dimes

Dec 20

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

How would you handle a community college student who—bluntly put—just smells absolutely horrendous? My other students are complaining that they can’t focus in the classroom. I think that the student should be made aware of her smell so that she can try to resolve it and avoid jeopardizing her social and professional future—but I’m not sure how to broach the topic.

— Kelly 

Sharing this information isn’t going to be easy, but doing so could create many long-term benefits for the student, the community and maybe even yourself—which is why you should definitely tell her.

It might be tempting to convey the information anonymously, which would save you some awkwardness, but it isn’t in the student’s best interest. Some research shows that it is particularly nice to get an anonymous love note because the uncertainty lets us imagine that we are adored by many people. The opposite is likely to be the case with an anonymous note about a negative trait.

My advice: sit the student down and break the news to her. You could start by saying that some people are more sensitive to smell than others and that you suspect her sensitivity is below average. Next, tell her that she has an odor that is noticeable to others and add that you worry that this is making interactions more difficult for her. Finally, offer your ongoing help as she tries to figure out what works for her and what doesn’t.

One last point: A while ago, I decided that every time I see someone with something in their teeth, I would tell them about it. Making this a rule was very helpful for me because now I don’t even need to consider whether to raise this potentially embarrassing point—and 100% of the time, people have thanked me for telling them.

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Dear Dan,

What’s the best way to give a guest speaker a gift they would truly love and appreciate?

—Wilma

Not long ago, I gave some lectures to a very nice group of people. At the end of the retreat, they held an auction of all kinds of souvenirs, and I bid on a homemade blanket that I particularly liked. Later that night, I discovered, they took the blanket out of the auction after I bid on it and gave it to me as a gift.

This was particularly nice for three reasons. First, I clearly liked the blanket because I bid on it. Second, I assumed that other people also wanted it. And finally, it didn’t have a real market value. All this made it a wonderful, highly appreciated gift without a specific price tag.

If you’re willing to be a bit manipulative, you could take this approach a step further: What if you held a live auction, and when you saw something that the guest speaker was interested in, you got other people to dramatically outbid him or her (offering, say, 10 times more than the speaker would)—and, at the end of the night, gave the item in question to the speaker? This process would make clear that your guest coveted the item, as did other people, and that its value was very high. Clearly an ideal gift.

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Dear Dan,

Why will many people not stop on the street to pick up a dime but would certainly stop to pick up a dime if it fell out of their pocket? Isn’t the value of 10 cents the same in both cases?

—Baruch

These might seem like the same case, but they aren’t. When we pick up 10 cents, we add to our wealth (just a bit), but when we reclaim a dime that we dropped, we prevent a loss—and preventing a loss is much more important and valuable.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Selfies, Saving Strategies, and the Scarcity of Attractive Males

Dec 06

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve noticed more people taking selfies. Some are even walking around with specially designed phone holders that help position their phones a bit farther away for taking better selfies. I’m not part of this selfie age group, and I find it all odd and somewhat annoying. Can you help me understand the fascination? Why can’t the new generation take pictures the good old way?

—Ayelet

The selfies phenomenon is complex, but here are some highlights: Its starting point is those moments we want to capture, for our own memories or to share with others. Now, if we were to stop what we’re doing and ask a stranger to take our picture, we would be stepping out of the moment emotionally: We’d have to stand still while smiling artificially, wait for the picture to be snapped, then try to get back to whatever were doing and feeling.

Selfies solve this problem because we don’t step out of the moment. A selfie can even enhance the moment by getting us to stand closer to one another and look at ourselves together on-screen—a sort of celebration of the shared experience.

Another interesting thing about selfies: We always expect them to produce an awkward, low-quality picture. So those of us who always worry about how we look on camera don’t need to fret as much: Everyone looks bad.

Finally, there is an important interplay between language and decision making at work here: Once we gave a name to the activity of huddling together, looking up at a phone from an uncomfortable angle and taking a picture, it became socially acceptable.

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Dear Dan,

Setting up automatic retirement savings mechanisms (where the default is participation but people can opt out) has been shown to increase savings rates in wealthy countries such as the U.S., Denmark and the Netherlands. But what can be done to raise savings rates in developing countries, where many people work in the informal economy, don’t get regular paychecks and lack access to sophisticated banking services?

—Varun

A recent World Bank report offers some hope. In Kenya, according to the bank, many households report that a lack of cash often holds them back from investing in preventive health products such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets. To help Kenyans save for such needs, researchers provided families with a lockable metal box, a padlock and a place to write the name of the desired item. Simply by making these boxes available, researchers increased the purchase rates of these preventive health products by 66% to 75%, the report said.

The idea behind this approach is that people tend to allocate their funds through a process of “mental accounting” in which they define categories of spending and structure their outlays accordingly. The metal box, the lock and the label all helped people to put money in a separate account dedicated to preventive health products.

More generally, this is an example of the value of labeling for saving and spending—something that each of us can probably use when salting money away for vacations or a rainy-day fund and when grappling with how much to spend on groceries, going out and home renovations.

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Dear Dan,

Broadly speaking, does the advantage of attractiveness differ across gender? Is it better to be attractive as a woman or as a man?

—Ajit

Some scientists theorize that babies look more like their fathers than their mothers so that nature can prove to the father that the baby is indeed his. Once the father is convinced, the baby can morph to look more like the mother. My own theory is that, since babies are often bald, wrinkled and far from attractive, they tend to look more like their fathers. As for your question: Given the rarity of attractive males, I suspect that the (very) few that fit the bill get a larger advantage.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On the Black Friday Binge

Nov 22

Dear Dan,

Thanksgiving is around the corner, including Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year, when many people spend way too much money. How do we stop this insanity?

—John

People do spend a lot of money on Black Friday, but is that really so irrational? To figure that out, we need to ask which state of the world we should compare this tradition to. If you assume that we could get people to blow less money on Black Friday and decrease overall irresponsible spending, then of course the world would be a better place without Black Friday.

But what if canceling Black Friday just spurred people to start living beyond their means every month of the year? And what if this extra increase in monthly splurging turned out to be larger than the spending increase on Black Friday itself? If all this were true, we would be better off with Black Friday.

Let’s think about dieting as an analogy for shopping. Many diets allow for a “cheat day” because they realize that without the permission to indulge sometimes, people are likely to give up dieting altogether. So the people who design diets have figured out that allowing people to go wild from time to time helps them behave well most of the time. What if Black Friday is the shopping equivalent of the cheat day?

I don’t endorse wasting money, but perhaps we should all figure out how much money we are willing to splurge with, take it in cash and indulge—but only at decent intervals.

Ask Ariely: On Erasing Email and Placebo Performance

Nov 22

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Recently, the German auto maker Daimler gave employees the option of automatically deleting all emails that arrive while they’re on vacation. Senders get a note suggesting that they resend their email later or write to other colleagues who are still in the office. This way, employees don’t have to face overflowing inboxes when they return. Is this a good idea?

—Kathleen

Not having to worry about email while you’re on vacation sounds wonderful, and this policy will probably boost employees’ well-being—though, of course, some will still wonder what they might have missed.

That said, the Daimler approach seems pretty extreme, and it deals with the symptoms rather than the root problem. In my experience, email stresses people out constantly, not just during vacations. We get too much email every day of the year; we spend too much time responding to it and worrying about it. Email correspondence in many corporations is so out of hand that it leaves almost no time for any actual work.

If the bosses at Daimler really care about their employees’ welfare, why not tackle the inefficiencies of this communication channel—and work to reduce their overall email load? How about announcing that no email is allowed between 9 and 11 a.m. and again between 1 and 3 p.m.? Or what if they limited people to just 10 emails a day? (Does anyone really have more than 10 important things to say in a day?)

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Dear Dan,

I’ve read a lot about the placebo effect. Does that mean it won’t work on me?

—Marco

It turns out that placebos operate to some degree outside of our awareness—which means that even when we know a particular medication is a placebo, we can still benefit from it. So don’t worry about knowing too much. Just take two placebos and call me in the morning.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On the Last Drop of Toothpaste, and Real Scars

Nov 05

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,
 
I went to brush my teeth this morning and found that I had to carefully, meticulously roll the tube from the bottom up before it would yield enough toothpaste. I wound up squeezing the tube so hard that my hands hurt and that I briefly considered buying one of those “toothpaste squeezers” you can find online. As I finally brushed, it occurred to me that my frugality behaviors are terribly inconsistent: I did whatever I could to squeeze as much toothpaste as possible from the tube, not daring to waste a gram of a cheap product—but as I continued with my grooming ritual, I wasted water, soap and many other scarcer, pricier products. 
 
Why is my frugality so inconsistent? And why is there a market for some frugality products, such as those toothpaste squeezers, but not others?
 
—Darin
 
I stopped aiming for consistency a long time ago, and I suggest that you also drop it as a standard for behavior. 
 
Consistency aside, your toothpaste behavior suggests how important attention is to our decision making.  At any moment, we could, in principle, carefully consider all our potential courses of action and all the ways we could save money and time.  But we don’t. We tend to consider only things that are front and center, and thus these aspects of life wind up driving our behavior. This is why, for example, people sometimes drive far out of their way to fill up their car with cheaper gas—wasting time and increasing the wear and tear on their car just to see the number on the pump drop a bit. 
 
More generally, all this implies that if we want people to waste less, we should make the waste clear, salient and visible. Perhaps we could position electrical meters at the center of our kitchens, add a water-measurement device to every faucet or equip cars to measure their total driving cost. And if we really want people to pay attention to these measures, maybe these numbers should be automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.   

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Dear Dan,
 
Many years ago, I was badly burned, and since then, I carry many visible scars. Recently, at a Halloween party, somebody pointed to the scars on my face and told me what a wonderful costume I had. I tried to correct her and explained that I was really very badly burned, but she burst out laughing.
 
At this point, I had two choices: make her feel guilty or let it go. What should I have done? I must admit that it colored the Halloween party for me, and I no longer felt like I belonged.
 
—Dan (Ariely)
 
 
You should have let it go. The person pointing out your scars clearly had only good intentions, and trying to correct her once was sufficient. This was probably one of hundreds of comments that she made during the party, and while her remark was central for you, if you asked her in 48 hours about her memories from the party, she probably wouldn’t even remember you, your scars or her comment. You had already stopped enjoying the party after her comment; my guess is that having made her feel bad about her remark would only have intensified your negative feelings.
 
P.S. One more lesson from this unfortunate episode: Sometimes, putting yourself in the position of an external advisor and asking yourself what advice you’d give to someone else in the same situation can be a useful way to reason more calmly and make better decisions. Good luck using this approach next time.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Buying Beer, Realizing Wrong, and Productive Periods

Oct 25

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m about to buy a new laptop—definitely a larger than usual purchase for me. I’ve found that when the base item is expensive, I’m much more likely to indulge in complementary ones, such as a new laptop case or software that I don’t really need but would be fun to play with. Why is it that I think twice about buying good beer on a night out but have no problem spending another $60 on a computer mouse I don’t need?

— Andrew

Here’s another example to help think through your question. Imagine that you’re going to buy a new car for $30,000, and the salesperson tells you that you can get leather seats for $2,000 more. How expensive would those luxurious seats seem to you? And how likely would you be to go for the upgrade?

Now imagine that instead of going to buy a car, you’re buying a new chair for your home office, at a cost of $500—and the furniture store tells you that you can get the chair in leather for $2,000 more. How likely would you be to go for it?

Most people would feel much better about the car upgrade than the chair upgrade. That’s because we think about money in relative terms: Relative to $30,000, that $2,000 doesn’t look that bad, but the same amount feels outrageous relative to $500.

Of course, money isn’t relative, and we should think about it in absolute terms, but this isn’t the natural way we make financial decisions. All this doesn’t make your tendency to shop for items you don’t need after a large purchases any more rational—but it should remind you that it’s very human.

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Dear Dan,

My husband is incapable of admitting that he is wrong, and it’s driving me crazy. What can I do to get him to acknowledge it when he’s wrong?

— Lisa

I suspect that many of the times that you most want your husband to admit that he’s wrong occur in large and central debates—which could be a mistake on your part.

One of the main problems with admitting error is reputation. Your husband may think that if he admits once that he was wrong, it will indicate that he could be wrong in other cases as well. If this is the case, a better way to fight his denial of wrongness will be to try to get him to admit once to a trivial mistake, maybe even in front of other people—and then hope that with that first step out of the way, the path to admitting other blunders will be more open.

Or here’s a less ambitious approach: give up on having him admit error and focus on just having him say that he’s wrong. For many years, psychologists used to recommend that married couples engage in something called “active listening”—telling the other person that we feel their pain and asking them to describe their annoyance in vivid color and detail. But psychologists have figured out that active listening was actually not very good advice. As it turns out, simply saying “Yes dear” is a much better strategy for a happy marriage. If your husband believes in science, perhaps sharing this sage advice with him will convince him that, despite his difficulty admitting that he’s wrong, agreement is often the best approach.

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Dear Dan,

When are people most productive? In the morning? At night? Are different people more productive at different times of day?

— Jacob

No question about it: For all kinds of people, the most productive time is tomorrow.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Capricious Cavities, Burning Bills, and Pursuing Pronoia

Oct 11

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a Swedish journalist working in New York City. I recently went for my annual dental checkup. I’d only ever had two cavities before, so I was shocked when the dentist told me I had nine. I don’t have U.S. dental insurance, so I chose to wait until my next visit home to get treated. To my surprise, my regular Swedish dentist found only two minor spots on my teeth and advised me to wait and see whether any problems developed. He also looked at my X-rays but didn’t find any cavities—let alone nine. 

How can two dentists disagree so much on the state of my teeth? 

—Linda

Clearly, your American dentist has much better vision.

Seriously, this is probably another example of a common problem in modern society: conflicts of interest. It is easy to chalk this confusion up to one bad apple of a dentist, but conflicts of interest are all around us, and they often change our view of the world.

As any sports fan will tell you, if a referee makes a call that goes against your team, you can’t help but see him as evil, blind, stupid, etc. The same goes for all kinds of motivations—including financial ones. Once we have a motivation for seeing reality in a self-interested way, we tend to do it—often without realizing that we are biased.

This is why Republicans and Democrats can see the same poverty and suggest such different policies for dealing with it. This is why Israelis and Palestinians can watch the same explosion and interpret it so utterly differently. And this is often why medical professionals who get paid by the procedure see the need for more procedures.

Understanding the prevalence of conflicts of interest probably won’t help us become more objective, bridge the political gap or bring peace to the Middle East. But it should often prod us to seek a disinterested second opinion.

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Dear Dan,

A new Android app called Burn Money lets users pick an animated replica of a bill from $1 to $100, pay for it with real money, then flick an animated lighter and watch the bill burn to electronic ashes. Users later receive a certificate they can post on their social media pages. And that’s it. 

What do you think?

—Emilia

Curious. Maybe people are using this app as a signaling device. Signaling is a way to communicate to ourselves and anyone watching who we are—and, often, who we want to be. For example, we can signal prosperity with the homes we buy, we can signal stylishness with the clothes we wear, and we can signal environmental concern with the hybrids we drive.

Similarly, letting people know you’ve been burning money (both virtual and real) could be an attempt to signal wealth—as if people are saying, both to themselves and to anyone watching, “Look at me: If I can burn money, doesn’t that show how wealthy and comfortable I am?”

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Dear Dan,

The U.S. Declaration of Independence gives us the right to pursue happiness. But is happiness really what we should aim for?

—Helen

Happiness is fine, but if I had to pick a mind-set to pursue, it would be pronoia—a state that is the opposite of paranoia. As I recently learned from Wharton professor Adam Grant, pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting our well-being or saying nice things about us behind our backs. Now there is a wonderful way to experience life.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Some new studies on power and corruption

Sep 28

John Antonakis and his colleagues just came out with a new paper on power and corruption (and Testosterone). 

Important and fascinating — and for sure worth the 14 min of this video

Ask Ariely: On Technology’s Painless Payment, Email Equilibrium, and TP Tribulations

Sep 27

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Apple recently announced Apple Pay, which will allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to simply wave their gadgets to pay for purchases. How might this technology change our spending habits? Could Apple Pay and other such hassle-free payment mechanisms (such as Amazon’s “1-click ordering”) lead us to spend more—particularly on stuff we don’t need?

—Nikki

The essence of payment is opportunity cost. Every time we face a purchasing decision, we should ask ourselves if getting this one thing is worth giving up the ability to purchase something else, now or in the future.

Different ways of paying make us think differently about those opportunity costs. For example, if we have $20 in cash in our pockets, we will have a hard time not thinking about opportunity cost. If we consider buying a sandwich, we realize that we won’t have money for coffee; if we get a cab, we realize that we won’t have money for dinner. But when we use a credit card or gift certificate, our thinking about opportunity cost will be less natural and prevalent—which means we’re likely to spend more without fully thinking about the consequences.

This is why the general answer to your questions is both yes and no. As you suggest, electronic payment mechanisms can easily lead us to think less about opportunity cost and spend more recklessly. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Electronic payment could be designed in ways that get us to more fully understand our opportunity costs and make more reasonable decisions. Apple Pay and the like could be game-changers, helping us think about our spending much more rigorously than we ever could with cash.

So the questions are: Who is designing these electronic wallets, and for what purpose? Will they be designed to get us to spend more money—or to help us make better decisions? Right now, electronic payments seem to be going down the path of less thinking and more spending—but I hope that at some point, some of the payment companies will change their approach, adopt the perspective of their users and offer electronic payment methods that help us make better financial decisions.

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Dear Dan,

How can I tell people who email me that I simply don’t have the time to respond to everyone?

—Kat

There is a well-known finding that when you ask couples how much each of them contributes to their relationship, the total far exceeds 100%. That is because we see all the things that we do, small and large, but we fail to see all the things that our partner does. The same is true for the people you respond to. They probably see how busy they are, but they have a hard time understanding the demands on your time.

So why don’t you create an automated email response that lists all the demands on your time, including how little time you have for sleep, exercise and your social life? With this kind of information, I hope, the people you email will understand why you can’t help them.

And while you perfect this approach, make sure you also—nicely—make your significant other aware of all the things you’re doing for the household and the relationship.

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Dear Dan,

Do people use twice as much single-ply toilet paper as double-ply?

—Gary

When toothpaste makers started putting a larger hole in the tube’s cap, people started using more toothpaste. That is because we judge the amount of toothpaste we apply largely by the stretch it covers on the toothbrush, not by its thickness or total volume. I suspect that the same principle is at work with toilet paper, which would mean that we judge the amount of toilet paper by its length—and don’t sufficiently adjust our use to take the added thickness into account.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

My attempts to reduce email overload…

Sep 23

As some of you might know, in addition to the general problem we all have with email overload, my specific issues are exacerbated by my disability (mostly limitations to moving my hands and some pain). I am not pointing my disability out to complain, but I do think that sometimes disabilities can act as a magnifying glass, letting us focus with more intensity on a problem we all have.  And I think that email overload is one of these problems

One of the main reasons for email overload is that email has become the one gateway for many different types of communications. We get email that are quick questions from co-workers, communications with family members and friends, mass communications, things we need to act on now, things that just keep us informed, invitations, discussions, and of course a lot of things we are not interested in.

With these various types of communications flooding one place—our inbox—and often interrupting us throughout our workday, is it any wonder that we feel frustrated and unproductive? That we are developing a collective ADHD, and that people look forward to sitting in an uncomfortable chair for a long time during flights just because there is no internet and no source for distraction (of course more and more flights are losing this advantage).

While complaining about email one day over breakfast with Dominik Grolimund—we came up with one partial solution to this problem: Why not ask the people who write email to be a bit more explicit about the type of email that they are sending and use this classification to redirect the email at the client side?  This way email will will behave differently based on its purpose and origin.

We used me as a case study, Dominik created the system, and I started asking people to email me using http://shortwhale.com/danariely by linking to it on my website and using it in my email signature.

Using this system I inform people how I prefer to get my email, I provide links to my online schedule, and I answer some questions I am most often asked. Most importantly, this simple contact form asks those who write me to choose their request type from a menu, the timeframe they want a response by, and if they need a response at all. With this classification system on the front end, my own email makes more sense and is less distracting. In my email client (Apple Mail) I have filters that redirect the email based on these tags and their requested timeframe.  For example, urgent emails appear in red in my inbox, while email that require a response by the end of the week find their way into a folder with that name. This sorting procedure allows me to stop my workday only to deal with important and urgent requests, and keep the rest of the email for the evening, weekend, downtime, and flight delays.

What has been incredibly satisfying about using Shortwhale for a few months is that it improves my use of time and it helps me respond more effectively to more people. After using Shortwhale for a while it was interesting to discover that the number of emails that are tagged “no response necessary” is rather large, and on top of this, I have also learned that a lot of people are happy to wait a week or even a month for an answer. Another feature of Shortwhale is that it allows people to easily create multiple choices within the email, and I find that providing people with this opportunity helps them get right to the point and saves me time.

Underlying all of this is the idea that while we we call a lot of things email, there are, in fact, different types of email and they each serve different purposes. The different types of email have different levels of importance, and we need to figure out how to differentially interact with them if we don’t want to continuously stop everything to check our inbox.

It is true that as it stands now, Shortwhale puts more demands on the sender. However, I think that the gains on the receiver’s side, coupled with the ability to respond quickly more than compensate for this extra initial hassle.

And, if you are under heavy email load, I’d love to hear what you think about this. You can contact me on Shortwhale :)

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