What Happens To Your Brain When You Finally Hit Inbox Zero

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There's no denying how stressful it can be when your inbox is full to the brim with unread emails. As you look at the dozens (or hundreds, or even thousands) of messages, it often seems like an impossible task to read them, delete them, and file them away. But that's why, once you clear your inbox, it can be an almost euphoric experience.

Completing a task like this can even impact your brain. "When we finish things on our to-do lists we feel a sense of success, which increases the dopamine in our brains," Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed psychologist and certified neurotherapist, tells Bustle. "Dopamine is a 'feel good' neurotransmitter so when it increases we feel [...] a sense of pleasure."

You might even ride the wave and go on to do similar tasks — like deleting all those old photos off your phone. "One thing begets another, meaning the more you do something the more you want to do more of it," Jackson says. "This is because our brains enjoy the 'feel good' feelings associated with rushes of dopamine to our brains, so we can crave more of that feeling."


The sense of reward will be stronger, too, especially if you're someone who prefers to keep your digital life organized. "We don’t like to have things that weigh on our thoughts, feelings, and physical state," Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. A full inbox can be stressful, he says, and even anxiety-inducing.

While there will always be more distressing things in the world, looking at a jam-packed inbox can drag you down both mentally and physically. If you know the emails are sitting there, waiting to be sorted, stress hormones will be released, you might experience muscle tension, and it can even impact your sleep. Cut to you lying awake at night thinking about your emails, not only because you need to respond to them, but because the chore feels "incomplete."

Since it's a stressor, hitting inbox zero can bring on a powerful sense of relief as a result. Once you complete this chore, your mind will no longer be preoccupied, Klapow says. Your emotions will settle, and the anxious, nervous, anticipatory feelings will be replaced with a sense of calm. "Our physical state changes," he says. "We go from a state closer to fight-or-flight to a state of relief and a sense of accomplishment."


Clearing out your messages helps relieve your "cognitive load," or that unseen list of tasks that you hold in your brain, Dr. Jen Douglas, a licensed psychologist and a clinical assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Bustle. "By bringing your inbox down to zero, [you can] experience relief and calm," she says. "Things are no longer hanging over your head, and [you'll] feel better and under less pressure."

While it's helpful to empty your inbox and organize your life, experts also point out you shouldn't get too hung up on doing so. "Like anything that provides relief from stress, we can become too focused on inbox zero and checking things off of our list," Douglas says. "This habit can become somewhat addicting. It can get to the point where people cross meaningful things off of lists just to get the 'rush' of having done something."

So, if you find yourself deleting emails just for the sake of completing a task — especially if it's at the expense of doing something more productive — try to switch gears. "Mindfulness exercises and prioritizing what is more important on your workload can help overcome the addiction to crossing things off of your list," Douglas says. Because, even though hitting inbox zero can be an amazing feeling, it doesn't always need to be a priority.


Dr. Catherine Jackson, licensed psychologist and certified neurotherapist

Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show

Dr. Jen Douglas, licensed psychologist and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stanford University School of Medicine