You've Read Every Email in Your Inbox at Work—But Does That Really Mean You've Had a Productive Day?

A mental health expert explains whether people should really strive for a "inbox zero" day at the office.

woman working on computer
Photo: Getty / Yuri_Arcurs

If you're looking to measure your daily productivity or simply want to better manage your day-to-day tasks, it makes sense to begin by examining your inbox. Emails may not be a physical mess, but once they start adding up, they place a metaphorical weight on your daily workflow. That's why so many workers across the country view achieving "inbox zero"—or answering, sorting, or deleting each and every digital note—as the ultimate sign of a productive day.

But is this really an accurate or healthy work model for everyone? "Mental health in the workplace is extremely personal and is all about how you as an individual work best," explains Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O., psychiatrist, and chief medical officer of LifeStance Health, a provider of virtual and in-person outpatient mental health care. "I've set personal boundaries about putting my email and phone away at night and on the weekends when my focus is on my family. This helps me feel the most present and productive during work hours—but it also makes having a zero inbox at all times more challenging." According to Dr. Patel-Dunn, it's important to know how you work best and prioritize that system for your mental health and general productivity. Ahead, discover whether the idea of "inbox zero" is ultimately conducive to this.

When and how you clear your inbox is both personal and project-dependent.

Dr. Patel-Dunn clarifies that a clear inbox is not the end-all, be-all indicator of productivity. Instead, your inbox should be optimized to and reflective of your needs and projects. For some, having unopened emails causes excess stress—if you fall into this camp, keeping your inbox at zero might help you stay focused at work and relaxed on the weekends. "A zero inbox is how some people stay organized and keep their finger on the pulse of important tasks at work—but, for others, opening emails as soon as they come in can be distracting and intrusive to other tasks that require deep focus," she says. "Not having a zero inbox can be an indicator that you were focused and productive on an ongoing project or giving your undivided attention to a Zoom meeting."

If you identify with this group, consider designating blocks of time during the day to open, answer, and delete messages; baking this task into your schedule via calendar reminders will help you maintain a sense of control and limit distractions.

Check in with your boss—and a mental health expert—if managing your inbox is overwhelming.

Once you assess your needs, identify any pain points you might feel about managing your inbox. "If you feel like you are avoiding your inbox, or procrastinating opening emails because it feels overwhelming or anxiety provoking, I'd recommend speaking to a licensed mental health professional about developing tools to cope with those feelings," Dr. Patel-Dunn says. This can be helpful especially for those who work remotely, which can often lead to feelings of isolation and added stress. "I'd also recommend opening up to your manager or a trusted colleague to see if they have any tools that help them," adds Dr. Patel-Dunn. "[Communicating] how you are feeling [ultimately helps] de-stigmatize mental health in the workplace."

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