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Cover image for Don't check your inbox. Process it!
Gio Lodi
Gio Lodi

Posted on • Originally published at

Don't check your inbox. Process it!

Do you ever find yourself filling moments of boredom by checking your inbox?

Maybe you're waiting for a build to compile, and you go check Slack.
Or perhaps your manager is late for the one-on-one meeting, and you scroll through emails in the meantime?

Harmless on the surface, a quick inbox check is dangerous both in the moment and in the long run.

The quick check trap

One problem with inboxes is that you never know what you might find in there.
The more people have access to you, the higher the chance you'll find messages requiring your attention in there.

Especially in big organizations, your inbox will often contain a question from a colleague, a comment that rubs you the wrong way, or a link to an article that will capture your attention.
Whatever you find on your "quick check" will force you to context switch.

Context switching is the number one enemy of cognitive efficiency.
Our brains cannot seamlessly switch between tasks.
There's a cost to pay every time.

UNI professor Gloria Mark has spent her career studying people's attention in the workplace.
Here's what she writes in her book Attention Span:

When people switch attention between different tasks [...] they need to reconfigure their internal representation of one task to the internal representation of the next task."

Reconfiguring one's internal representation is a gradual process that takes time to complete.
The contents of the previous center of our attention remain in the periphery afterward, reducing the available mental bandwidth.

Again from Gloria Mark:

Rapid attention-shifting has repercussions on our ability to process information.
What one looked at previously can interfere with what one is currently looking at.

Interruptions and context-switching decrease the quality of our focus and, in turn, compromise the quality of our results.

If you want to protect your ability to perform, you must be careful in how you interact with your inboxes.
Stop checking. Process them instead.

From checking to processing

Processing an inbox means working through each new item and deciding what to do with it.
Should it be addressed immediately, or can it be scheduled?
Can you delegate it?
Is it something you might need in the future?
Do you need to update your daily plan because of the new information the item carries?

Notice how this approach is intentional and focused.
It requires shifting gears into planning mode and big-picture thinking.
This kind of interaction with your inbox can only be achieved if you give it your full attention, not while you are already deep into something else.

Treat looking at your inboxes like a standalone task, not a time-filler.

From reactive to proactive

Checking your inbox while waiting for something is a reaction to boredom.

Our brains crave novelty.
When faced with a hint of boredom, they'll try to find something else to do.
With a computer or phone at hand, a brain that fears being bored has plenty of opportunities to distract itself.

There are times when being reactive is essential.
If there's a fire to put out, be that login infrastructure suddenly offline or a literal fire in the building, you better be responsive.

But if you react to every input, you'll never make progress on what truly matters to you.
Whether it's your brain's need for entertainment or the stream of messages in your work chat, you should not let others dictate where you direct your attention.

Processing your inboxes is a proactive approach.
You still need to deal with whatever you'll find in there, but you give yourself the opportunity to do it strategically.

Look at your inbox as a whole, and you'll identify the most important items to tackle—the ones that move the needle.
When you continuously check your inbox, your day risks becoming a jumble of unfinished work, with each new entry setting you off in a different direction.

Open your inbox only when you have the time and mental bandwidth to address whatever you'll find in it, either by tackling it or by organizing it into your trusted system.

Don't check.

Originally published on

Cover credits Rinck Content Studio, with edits mine.

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Top comments (1)

raddevus profile image

I recently discovered Inbox Zero and that sounds like what you are describing here with "Processing Your Inbox".
Here's what chatGPT had to say about Inbox Zero:

Image description

It's an interesting concept and is definitely more proactive. I do the same thing with my phsyical snail-mail that comes to my house. If it is junk I rip it up. If it is something important I take action on it immediately.
If you get a chance, would you mind taking a look at my recent article here on and commenting? Software Developer, Are You Just a Hammer?