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Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List

Strategies and goals

Let’s say an important e-mail arrives in your inbox, a message you have to reply to at length or do something about. You don’t want to forget about it, but you can’t take care of it right away, so what do you do? Put a star or a flag on it? Re-mark it unread? Put a post-it note up? Just hope for the best?

E-mail inboxes are lousy to do lists. An item in an inbox might have to do with one major task, a bunch of tasks, a task that could be done very quickly (like a one-sentence reply), or no task at all. It’s very hard to prioritize and sort them. Trying to use e-mails as reminders is kind of like trying to use a cat as a rolling pin: you might be able to make it work, but the process is going to be painful and you might not be happy with the results.

Taming my inbox
Almost a year and a half ago, I finally figured out how to keep my e-mail inbox empty. I don’t know if e-mail affects you the same way it does me, but it used to be that I’d go into my e-mail and immediately feel exhausted by the massive list of subjects I’d left lying around in my inbox. I’d look at the newest things, maybe delete some unimportant notices or spam messages, read anything quick and appealing, and mentally designate other messages to follow up on later.

“Later” would sometimes take weeks. Sometimes it would never come at all.

So e-mails languished in my inbox, growing from tens to hundreds to thousands, a huge mishmash of messages from friends I really wanted to hear from, junk mail, reminders of things to do (or that I had already done, or had let slip past), information I needed, and a lot of other noise. Just looking at it was enough to destroy my motivation for doing anything about it. The job always seemed too big until I finally figured out how it could be done early last year: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty.” My e-mail box was still empty 10 weeks later, and it’s empty today too, though it’s had periods where ten to twenty messages accumulated for a while when I wasn’t being completely vigilant.

(By the way, for a recommendation on free, Web-based e-mail that lends itself to keeping an empty inbox–GMail is no good for this, I’m afraid–see my post “Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox.”)

Neat is good, but functional is better
Even with this e-mail organizational systems, I’ve still had trouble sometimes keeping on top of tasks that show up in my inbox. Some have languished in my Reply/Act folder for much too long, while others have been attended to when they weren’t the highest priority at the moment just to get them out of the way. Since I keep a separate task system, having tasks in e-mail too meant that I had to go back and forth between the two systems and try to decide which one had the most important task at the moment. That’s distracting, demotivating, and a pain in the neck. The best way to get things done is to know the one thing you’re going to do next and focus your energies on it alone. Prioritizing tasks needs to be something you can do once and then be done with, not something you have to reevaluate every time you finish something up and are looking for the next priority.

(For how and why to get organized with a kind of task list that actually works, see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips,” “My Top 1 Task,” “Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule,” “Why Task Lists Fail,” and “Useful Book: Getting Things Done.”)

Making tasks out of e-mails
So what’s the solution? It’s a pretty simple one, actually: when you have an e-mail that needs further action, and when you can’t do that action right away, make a task to remind you to take care of that e-mail (making a note of the e-mail you have on the subject, for reference), then prioritize that task in your task list. If you don’t have a task list, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done  and start one. It will make your life happier and simpler, believe me.

This approach works regardless of whether you keep an empty inbox like I do.

I know that making tasks for e-mails may feel like extra work, but the amount of effort involved is hardly anything, and keeping everything in your task list means the end of a lot of distraction, annoyance, and potential anxiety from having to remember and review multiple places that each might have things needing to be done. If you prefer not to go to the trouble of keeping a clean inbox, this approach even frees you from having to worry about whether your inbox is empty or not because you no longer have to worry you’ll forget about the important e-mails buried in with all the other stuff.

Photo by Darcie



  1. kim rody  •  Aug 1, 2011 @3:18 pm

    ok, my inbox has been empty for almost 3 days!!!! i absolutely cannot believe it. my “act” folder is on ONE PAGE. unbelievable. thank you thank you thank you.

  2. Luc  •  Aug 1, 2011 @3:32 pm

    Way to go, Kim! If your e-mail situation is anything like mine used to be, it feels kind of surreal, doesn’t it?

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