Use Your Email Inbox as a Todo List
This is the simplest way that I have found to track todos sent to you in email. This tweak to how you use your email inbox will ensure that an important task in an email never slips through the cracks again and will boost your peace of mind and productivity.
I’ve been told by a number of friends & clients that this is my best productivity tip because it’s so simple to enact and a very high return on investment.
How to Manage Your Inbox
It’s really pretty simple. Just like it says in the title, just use your email inbox as a todo list. Don’t leave a message in your email inbox unless an action needs to be taken with the email. This is the key.
Everything that needs no further action taken is archived or moved to a different folder. At any given time, only a handful of emails should be in your inbox and you should be able to scroll just a little bit and see your entire inbox contents and get a feel for actions you need to take.
Now let’s look at how it works from a very tactical level.
First Steps – Setup
Use Archive to remove email messages instead of Delete. If you are using Gmail, you probably doing this already. If you are using something else, you may not.
You will be much more confident in clearing & managing your inbox if you know that a message moved out of the inbox is not gone forever, it’s moved to your Archive. You can use your email’s Archive function (Gmail moves messages to ‘All Mail’) or you can just move messages to a folder of your choosing. But, use Archive to get rid of messages instead of deleting them. Worst case, you can always search and find the message again one day.
Make sure to set your smartphone 0r tablet to Archive as well as your desktop client (again, default for most Gmail clients).
Create 3 email folders in addition to your Inbox:
- To Do
- Follow Up
- To Read Someday
We will cover the use of these below.
Some Basic Processing Rules for Messages
Now we are ready to get started. There are really only 6 statuses of messages that can occur. The processing guidelines for all 6 of them are below.
- If you have not read an email and never plan to, archive it immediately.
- If you have not read an email and aren’t sure when you will (i.e. it’s not time-sensitive, maybe a newsletter or article), then move it to the”To Read Someday” folder. Can crack this folder open while waiting in a doctor’s office one day.
- If you have not read an email and plan to do so soon, leave it in your inbox.
- If you have read an email and action needs to be taken on the message, leave it in your inbox until you complete the action. When an action is a week or more in the future, then you can, optionally, move the message to the “To Do” folder to cut down on clutter in the inbox, but, this is up to you.
- If you have read an email and no action needs to be taken, however, you may need to follow up, move the message immediately to the “Follow Up” folder.
- If you have read an email and no action needs to be taken or the action has already been completed, archive it or, if you feel that followup might be needed (i.e. you asked someone to do something and want to make sure that they do it), move the message to the “Follow Up” folder.
The Most Important Part – The Review
Hold a review of your Inbox, To Do, and Follow Up folders weekly. You will often fall off in managing your Inbox during the craziness of the week. This is normal and expected. You don’t need to stress about managing your inbox every single day. This review is your chance to catch everything up.
Go through your Inbox during your Review and look at every message that remains. Then take the appropriate actions described above.
If you want to finish your Review with a completely empty Inbox, you can move “action to be taken” emails to your To Do folder rather than leaving in your Inbox.
I like to do Reviews on Friday afternoons. This sends me into the weekend with the feeling that I have reviewed everything on my plate. Ever get all caught up before vacation and leave with peace of mind? Doing this gives you that feeling every weekend.
However, you can do this any time of week that you like. Use a calendar event or reminder to so that you don’t forget, especially while you develop the habit.
“This sounds great, but, I already have thousands of messages in my inbox that have built up over years. How will I ever get caught up?”
Declare Inbox Bankruptcy. Go back 2 weeks, 2 months, or any time period you are comfortable with and Archive every email before that point. You can use some kind of “Select All” function to get this done quickly.
This gives you a manageable collection of emails to work through from the past few weeks. Most of those old emails are either long since dealt with or it’s too late to act on them anyway.
If you really want to make sure nothing slips through, also send an email to your contact saying:
My email inbox has become unmanageable due to a high volume of email and I have archived many of my old emails. If you are waiting on something from me and haven’t heard back, please send me another email. I’ve adopted a new email management system and I will make 100% sure that your request is processed this time.
All the best,
This method of managing email has been tremendously helpful to me in reducing email-related information & tasks overwhelm. Let me know what you think in the comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonus Tip – consider turning off notifications for new emails, as detailed in this post about how Notifications are probably silently killing your productivity.