Why You Shouldn’t Underestimate the Power of a Clean Inbox

Does your inbox control your day? An annual Adobe survey showed that the average white-collar office worker spends just over 4 hours per day on their work email. That equates to 20 hours per week, more than 1,000 per year, and an incredible 47,000 hours over the course of their career… that’s 5 years!

If you’re curious where you fall on the spectrum, check out The Washington Post’s self-proclaimed “depressing calculator” to get your own shiny personal estimate.


YouTube personality Casey Neistat sums up the struggle well:



At first glance, most readers likely just smirk, agree, and keep scrolling through their feed. But under this joke lies a deep psychological truth: whether you’re consciously aware or not, a full inbox can have a massive impact on your stress levels, productivity, and overall outlook toward your day and even your life as a whole.

Exposing Our Email Addiction


Another downside to the avalanche of emails is how it tends to infiltrate our work-life balance – which research consistently shows is critical for our health and wellbeing, as well as the health of the businesses that give us that work.


To ease the pressure of sitting down to a full inbox, many of us try to get a “head start” before we even set foot into work. Digging a bit deeper into the Adobe email survey, we see that only about a quarter of respondents refrain from checking their email until they’re in the office, with the majority of respondents incorporating it into their morning routine.


Image credit: Slideshare


When the workday is over, it’s time to unwind and forget about that nightmare-inducing inbox. Right? Right, if unwinding means checking your email while you’re watching your favorite Netflix show, getting ready for bed, using the bathroom, talking on the phone, walking, hanging out or eating dinner with your friends and family, working out…


When given a sizeable list of activities outside of work in the prior month, a measly 8% of survey respondents didn’t use these opportunities to multitask checking their emails.


Image credit: Slideshare


We know that a stuffed inbox is time-consuming. But what impact does it really have on our psychological well-being?

The Science Doesn’t Lie


Researchers from the University of British Colombia (UBC) conducted a study on email and stress. The published report was aptly titled “Checking email less frequently reduces stress.” (Can you guess the results?) In the study, participants were examined for two weeks. During one week, they could only check their email three times a day. The other week, there was no limit.


The results showed that those who were limited to three checks per day had significantly lower stress throughout the week. This had a snowball effect on other aspects of their lives: the lower-stress group also did better on general wellbeing outcomes like sleep quality, productivity, mindfulness, social connectedness – even a stronger sense of their “meaning in life.”


Similarly, a UK study showed increased heart rate and blood pressure when government employees were actively using their emails:


Image credit: Dr. Jackson


These aren’t the only examples of research with the same message. There’s this one. And this one. And this one.


Simply put, your inbox can be a contributing culprit to a large, unfortunate list of things that stand to be improved in your day-to-day.


Fortunately, as email becomes a bigger part of our lives, it’s also becoming a bigger part of the conversation about how to improve quality of life and productivity for businesses and their employees.

Arianna Huffington Knows the Benefits of a Clean Inbox


Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, is a firm proponent of work-life balance and reducing stress. She’s a self-proclaimed “sleep evangelist,” after all. Part of her philosophy is three steadfast personal rules when it comes to email. She won’t check hers:


  1. 30 minutes before bed
  2. First thing in the morning
  3. When she’s with her family


But what really sets her apart is how she applies her outlook at her current company Thrive Global. When her employees are on vacation, the company’s email system automatically deletes all emails they receive. Let that sink in. No emails when they get back from vacation.


Anyone who sends an email will receive this auto-response:


“Thank you for your email. I am out of the office through January 10. For anything urgent re Thrive Global please email [Thrive employee’s name and email]. Otherwise, please email me again when I return as this email will be deleted.”


Her rationale for doing this?


Data shows that 54% of Americans don’t use their available vacation time, citing “a return to a mountain of work” as their top reason. But conversely, research shows that employees who take time off are more likely candidates for raises and promotions – they’re less overworked, more productive, and generally happier on the job.


Research from Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage shows that when an employee’s brain can think positively, their productivity jumps by 31%, the company’s sales increase by 37%, and overall creativity and revenues can triple. After a decade of research, Achor concluded: “The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”


This theory is confirmed over and over:


  • Harvard Business Review (HBR) reports that employee happiness invites 300% more innovation and 125% less burnout
  • Gallup found that happier employees created 44% higher employee retention and 51% less turnover
  • Forbes reports that the happiest employee takes 66% fewer sick leaves


Image credit: Happy Project


It’s simple deductive reasoning: a packed inbox is a psychological and time-constraining burden. Lessening employee burdens creates more happiness, which nurtures productivity and engagement. Therefore, by lessening the burden of email, everyone wins.


Of course, we can’t expect that our bosses (and clients) will see the light and adopt Huffington’s rule tomorrow, so let’s get back to strategies you can apply right now.

Taking Control Is Easier Than You Might Think


While it’s clear that email can be overwhelming, it’s also a necessary part of our day. It’s unfortunately just not possible to ignore our inbox in search of zen (though we can keep dreaming). Because of the huge role it plays in our daily lives, many people put off organizing it or trying to achieve “inbox zero.” They may think that it’s not worth the time and effort, or that inbox zero is a myth and a waste of time.


But there are tools and strategies out there to help manage the avalanche, without the need to add more work and stress to your already-full plate.


For more actionable tips on how to manage your inbox based on your business habits and personal lifestyle, check out this awesome, in-depth article from HubSpot titled “4 Expert Strategies for Reaching Inbox Zero.”


It includes some nifty tips on how to tackle your Gmail and Outlook with strategies like setting up multiple inboxes and folders for organization, using rules to filter emails into these organized inboxes and folders, and setting time in your calendar to prioritize when to check what.


Image credit: HubSpot


The right organizational strategies can help you cut one-third of your time spent in your inbox – time you spent mentally organizing, doing something more important, then coming back and processing an email.

Tim Ferriss Lays Down the Law


Productivity guru Tim Ferriss tames his inbox with a strategy similar to the UBC study we mentioned earlier. When he decided enough was enough, he monitored and ignored his emails – gasp! – for one day. This gave him the opportunity to observe his inbox and its peak times. He found the two points in the day with the highest activity, and blocked off those times in his calendar for designated email-checking.


Then he let everyone know about it with an auto-responder:


“Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12:00pm ET [or your time zone] and 4:00pm ET.


If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00pm or 4:00pm, please contact me via phone at 555-555-5555.”


He says it works wonders.


Image credit: HubSpot

Tools That Help You “Set it and Forget it”


If you’re into a more hands-off approach, you’ll find plenty of specially-designed tools that automate the process once you set up some rules and settings. You’ll find some that are:


  • Free with limited functionality
  • “Freemium” if you’d like to upgrade from your free account for more features
  • Subscription-based to jump right in with full functionality


Our team at SaneBox has heard from a lot of users who decided to try it out as a test-run, and had their glimmering “a-ha!” moment (we like to call them our Inbox Zero Heroes). They’ll never dive into the deep end alone again:


Change Your Inbox – Change Your Life


If you’re drowning in your own emails and starting to feel helpless, there’s hope in many forms. The right solution is just a matter of figuring out your personal preferences, needs, lifestyle, and resources, and then scouting your options to see what fits best.


This may end up being a combination of implementing some personal discipline and setting a daily email-checking limit, setting up some rules and organization inside your email account, or enlisting help from a specialized tool. In any event, we hope that you can finally find some peace of mind and take control of your inbox so it can stop controlling you.


Do you have any inbox management tips we haven’t mentioned? Tell us in the comments below.


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