Does an empty inbox actually mean you have your life together?

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At a meeting last week, a colleague glanced at my laptop screen and gasped. She’d eyed the bold red number on my browser window, opened to Gmail: I had nearly 80,000 unread emails. Another colleague commented that my cluttered inbox was probably having a subconscious effect on my mental state. I immediately felt plagued with intense inbox shame. Would having Inbox Zero really be better for my mental health?

Productivity consultant Merlin Mann introduced the concept of Inbox Zero during a talk at Google in 2007, when he encouraged people to “process to zero every time you check your email,” according to Slate. Since then, numerous theories have emerged about how reaching this digital nirvana could lower anxiety and enhance productivity. In The Guardian, Moya Sarner describes experiencing “a euphoric feeling of purity” when she reached Inbox Zero.

These articles reflect the popular interpretation of Inbox Zero: literally leaving zero emails unread. It turns out that this wasn’t what Mann had originally conceived. “The real zero is how much of your mind is on email” — in other words, the time you spend truly present and engaged in life versus anxiously thinking about the emails and other notifications blowing up your devices.

The mental health experts I spoke to agreed. Whether emptying your inbox benefits your mental health “depends on your value system and the anxiety that your email brings you,” says Thea Gallagher, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. For some people, not responding to or archiving an email may affect their ability to focus on other tasks, and keeping their unread emails at zero really does bring them serenity. But for others, seeing thousands of unread emails doesn’t stress them out. Maybe they’ve taken on more responsibilities than people who do routinely declutter their inbox, or made other things, like exercising or maintaining their social lives, more of a priority.

“If [keeping your unread email count at zero] is important to you, and it makes you feel better, do it,” Gallagher says. But if it’s not part of your value system, or don’t feel that it benefits you, “then it might not be helpful at all.”

Enrique Arnaiz Lafuente

How can you tell if an empty inbox is important to you? Depending on your biology or past experiences, responding to emails may give you a deep sense of reward. “If that is rewarding to you and that helps your functioning, then that might be more of a priority,” says Kaz Nelson, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School. But if responding to emails doesn’t feel all that rewarding, and other forms of self-care feel more meaningful, then decluttering your inbox is less of a priority. Context matters, too. Maybe you’re okay with letting unread messages pile up in your personal inbox—but not in your work inbox, because you have a job that requires prompt communication.

However you approach your inbox, the key is to stay flexible. It’s one thing to set a goal of Inbox Zero—it’s another to find yourself totally unable to function if you can’t achieve it, Gallagher says. Ask yourself why you want to reach Inbox Zero. Can you simply not stand an unread email hanging over your head? If so, immediately responding to email may just be a reaction to underlying anxiety. It’s important to learn how to tolerate the discomfort of having unread emails in your inbox, rather than give in to the compulsion of answering each one. After all, you may not always have access to email. Taken to its extreme, striving for Inbox Zero can encourage you to constantly be “on the clock,” which not only makes you feel like you have no control over your time, but can also lead to hypervigilance, preventing you from fully engaging in your social life and relationships, Gallagher says.

If you feel compelled to tame your unwieldy inbox, Gallagher also suggests asking yourself whether you’re truly trying to meet your own expectations, or those of others.

On the other hand, if you genuinely want to wrangle your inbox but keep avoiding it, it’s important to confront it, Gallagher says. Nelson agrees. “Perfectionism can lead to procrastination,” she says. (For instance, you may worry so much about not being able to pull off that long, exquisitely-crafted response in your head that you avoid replying at all.) Nelson adds that perfectionism can worsen with stress, setting off a vicious cycle of avoidance. She suggests taking baby steps, like emailing a Cliff Notes version of your response, with a commitment to follow up with a more complete version later, or an invitation to discuss it further in a phone call.

If you feel compelled to tame your unwieldy inbox, Gallagher also suggests asking yourself whether you’re truly trying to meet your own expectations, or those of others. Do you feel like you “should” clean your inbox, since leaving it alone would mean you’re lazy/messy/insert negative adjective here? If so, consider that “maybe other people are organized in a different way,” Gallagher says. Instead of beating yourself up, own your organized clutter. “Recognize that you’re feeling shame, but that it’s not based on anything legitimate,” especially if it works for you and you’re willing to accept the consequences of a few important messages falling through the cracks, Nelson says. Rather than scrambling to hide your inbox from your coworkers, maybe even take pride in your inbox and tweet a screenshot of it, she suggests.

“The stress we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis is really unprecedented in human history,” Nelson says, and that it’s even possible for someone to receive thousands of emails or more is ridiculous. In the end, “something’s got to give.” For some people, that “something” is their unread messages, and for others it’s not. “I might not relate to somebody who has 10,000 emails in their inbox, but I shouldn’t judge that because everyone is doing the best they can.”

Until last week, I hadn’t cared much about all my unopened emails, most of them non-urgent newsletters and press releases. I had managed to meet my deadlines and other professional obligations regardless. Sure, I could devote a weekend (or more) sorting through my tens of thousands of unread messages—but I would much rather spend that free time writing, hitting the gym, or chilling with my partner and friends. And I’m perfectly okay with that.