2 min read

Your inbox is not a good todo list

Stop marking those emails as Unread.
Your inbox is not a good todo list
Photo by Justin Morgan / Unsplash

In my own journey to be more productive, this was a major shift for me.

Part of the problem is that most people don't even realize they're doing this—but if you perpetually keep emails in your inbox as a 'reminder' to get back to them, or even if you're a serial "Mark As Unread"-er, you're using your inbox as a todo list.

This is ineffective for a number of reasons:

  1. The action item isn’t clear. Best case, the actual 'to-do' is buried somewhere in all that text. But more often, there’s an action item related to the email, but not actually stated. So you have to redetermine the context, every time.
  2. You can't prioritize the tasks. Everything in your inbox is sorted by the time you received it. You can slightly prioritize with stars or tags, but you can't specifically move one item to the top (or bottom) of your list.
  3. You're increasing distraction & email addiction. If my todo list is my inbox, then I have to keep checking my inbox all the time. And the only way to get to the urgent items is to (ideally) scroll past or (more often) try to deal with all of the more recent messages. This means you are constantly cultivating the tyranny of the urgent by placing important items behind whatever random messages have been sent to you.

So, what to do instead?

Lots of startups have launched to improve email. I've used many of them and there certainly are better platforms for email. But... this isn't an email platform issue. This is a task management & prioritization issue. And those are things that only you can improve. Here's what I recommend:

  • Bucket your email time. This is a full topic, in itself, but limiting email access will force you to be more efficient with the time that you’re using it.
  • If the response will take less than 2 minutes, do it right away. Minor tasks generally aren’t worth scheduling or coming back to. Just knock it out and move on.
  • Use (surprise!) an actual todo list. For any other action items: manage them with your general todo list or project management software. Break it down into component parts, set deadlines if necessary, and prioritize accordingly.

By making these shifts, you can improve your workflow and create more time and space for the deep work that really makes an impact. It's made a huge difference for me! So try it out and let me know what you think.