Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Are You Using Your Email Inbox as a To-Do List?

Image entitled Breath while reading your email!, by Marie-Chantale Turgeon; found on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Current status: Using my Inbox as a to-do list. — Greg Lipper

My email inbox is basically a todo list of stuff I don’t want to do. — Tim Van Damme, via a number of other people

Lots of people will say you should never use your inbox as a to-do list, for lots of good reasons.

1. Email subject lines often aren’t a good indicator of what the to-dos are. As Gina Trapani wrote:
For example, you receive an email from a friend and the subject line is “hi.” The two of you go back and forth a dozen times, then decide to make plans for dinner, and suddenly it's up to you to make reservations at Rosarita's House of Tacos on July 14th at 7PM. Stick that into your “TO-DO” folder, and you've got a task that reads: “Re: re: re: re: re: re: hi.” That doesn’t tell you much, does it?
2. Emails are not nicely sorted into individual tasks, as Leo Babauta explained:
There might be multiple actions in each email. What if an email contains 10 to-do items? You can’t delete or archive the email when you’ve done one or two of the actions. It’ll remain in your inbox until all 10 are done, as if nothing has been done. Also, you might forget that there are multiple actions in an email and file or delete it when you’ve done one of the actions.
3. Not all tasks come to you via email, so you’re likely to wind up with two to-do lists: one in email and one somewhere else. And managing two lists can be problematic.

4. Using one tool for two purposes can make it harder to do either one well. As Jill Duffy wrote:
Trying to tweak your inbox to function like a to-do list results in a very poor to-do list. Guess what? It also creates a very poor inbox, so now you [have] two inefficiencies! If you try to manipulate your inbox to double as your to-do list, it leaves you flipping between operations.
5. As Rachel Andrew wrote, emails sitting in your inbox “feel like they are constantly nagging you to act on them, whatever their priority.”

6. And to quote Leo Babauta once more:
An email inbox contains distractions. ... If you’re looking at your to-dos in email, you’re in very big danger of new emails coming in and distracting you. ... I’d prefer a simple to-do list that allows you to shut off email while you’re trying to get important work done.

And while this all makes sense, some people find that using their email as their to-do list works just fine for them.

David Pogue, who was The News York Times’ technology columnist before moving to Yahoo, is one of those. In a column titled “Pogue’s Productivity Secrets Revealed,” he wrote:
I’m not a believer in the “empty your Inbox every day” philosophy; in fact, my Inbox is my To Do list, which works great. When I’ve dealt with something, I delete or file it. When I haven’t, its presence in that list reminds me that it needs doing.
As someone wrote in response to a Harvard Business Review article titled “Stop Using Your Inbox as a To-Do List”:
“Stop Using Something Which Works Perfectly Fine For Millions Of People”
As with so many organizing issues, it’s often useful to read the advice and understand the recommendations — but then figure out what works for you.


Penguinlady said...

I used my inbox as my to-do for years with success. I was an online project manager running as many as 25 projects at a time, so I was very busy. Our company did almost all communication via email, plus I had to keep client communication for accountability, and ended up with thousands of emails (one vacation,I came back to 8,000 new emails after 2 weeks). Filing completed or informational items left just active to-dos in my inbox, so I could find them quickly and respond to immediate questions. It took work to keep up with, but any system does, and I rarely missed anything.

Julie Bestry said...

I'm with David Pogue, but as you note, the utility of using your inbox to drive your actions depends on the you, the user.

Within half a day of receipt of an email, anything left there in mine is actionable, and the subject line isn't what I use. Just seeing there's a message from X, because I've read the email, triggers what it is that X needs from me.

I never keep more than a dozen emails in my inbox, so it's not overwhelming. But again, I recognize that it works for me -- it's not necessarily what I'd encourage a client to use. But the email's content usually has all the essentials needed to take action -- it's basically the equivalent of a slot in a tickler file. If I wrote the item on my task list, I'd then have to go look in a sub-folder of emails entitled "Actionable" anyway, so why not keep it as accessible as I need it to be?