Why chasing 'inbox zero' is a waste of time

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Clearing your inbox might feel good, but is it really worth it? (Getty)

Trying to clear your inbox feels like a never ending task. Even if you manage to go through all of them, answering the important messages and deleting the junk, your inbox will more than likely be full again the next morning.

According to a consumer email survey of over 1,000 US workers by Adobe, consumers are checking personal email an average of 2.5 hours on a typical weekday. On top of that, they’re spending an average of 3.1 hours checking work email.

Another study by the time management tool RescueTime, we spend 76% of our days using communication tools. On average, we check our communication apps 40 times a day, or once every 7.5 minutes during our five hours of daily digital work time.

Clearing your inbox might feel good, but is it really worth spending all our time chasing ‘inbox zero’?

Most of us know we probably spend too much time checking our emails. We do it first thing in the morning and often last thing at night before we head to bed – and we refresh our inboxes constantly throughout the day, often without thinking about it.

Read more: Top tips to handle email overload

Despite this, the majority of us have no idea just how much time we spend checking our emails. According to a survey by AffinityLive, almost 40% of respondents reported never tracking time spent reading and answering email and 15% rarely do. Only 33% of respondents said that they track time spent on email “always” or “often.”

When we don’t keep tabs on how long we spend on our emails, they can quickly take over our day. And when we are spending too long answering, replying, forwarding, following up and looping people in, it’s likely that our own work is piling up – causing undue anxiety.

Research led by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that email usage is negatively related to stress.

“When an individual spends more time on email during the workday, it is significantly related to lower assessed productivity and higher stress,” the researchers wrote. “Communication is easier and faster via email than written notes and thus it creates more messages that people must spend time with, not only in responding to them, but also in organising and filing.

“Also, as it is easy for the sender to make requests and delegate work, this creates new tasks which the recipient may not view as critical to work – some of which must be conducted through email. Email creates interruptions which involve extra work for users to reorient back to the task at hand, and which could lead to stress.”

Read more: What you need to know about email etiquette

While emails have made communication quicker and easier, research suggests it has affected how productive we are at work. We often feel more productive once we’ve cleaned out our email inbox, despite perhaps not accomplishing anything of actual value for our company.

In 2014, researchers from the University of British Columbia found that checking emails more frequently is linked to stress and a lack of productivity. For the study, 124 adults were instructed to limit checking email to three times daily for a week. Others were told to check email as often as they could. The results showed that limiting email decreases stress and increases productivity because it reduces multitasking and distraction.

It’s also important to remember that the majority of the emails that land in our inboxes are junk, too. In fact, two-thirds (66%) of the email that comes in is spam. A lot of the rest is non-urgent and doesn’t need to take up as much of your time. With this in mind, spending hours clearing our inboxes is potentially time wasted – and it could be better spent getting on with our work, so it doesn’t pile up.

However, ignoring your emails and letting your inbox grow wild isn’t the answer. As many people can attest, seeing the number of unread messages pile up can cause even more anxiety and stress. “People have also reported anxiety in not being able to keep up with their inbox, which could result in missing critical information,” the University of California, Irvine researchers reported.

Read more: Does a blanket ban on out-of-hours emails actually help our wellbeing

A better approach is to think about how much time we spend on emails and to reduce it. This might mean giving yourself 20 minutes every couple of hours to answer anything urgent, rather than checking your messages every time you see a notification.

It’s also important to prioritise what needs to be answered straight away and what can wait. Rather than spending an hour sifting through spam, try searching for certain keywords. By forgetting about the coveted “inbox zero,” you may just get more done.