ChelPixie: Why You Should Stop Using Your Inbox as a To Do List

I had been pondering a post on how important it is to get your to-dos out of your email inbox and into something else – anything else really, although different methods work for different people. Before we can get into to-do tools and which services might work for you, the first thing we need to teach you to do is to stop freaking out when someone says “did you get the e-mail I sent you?” and be able to nod your head, say yes, and either respond immediately or ask them what they wanted to know.

For that, blogger extraordinaire, social media expert, and WordPress guru Chel explains some of the most important reasons why you should stop using your inbox as your de-facto task list.

For the record, and before anyone asks, this isn’t one of those situations where I’ll sit here and tell you that I’m giving you this advice and somehow I’m my own worst offender – there have been plenty of posts here where I’ve said that. This time though, I have a personal stake in this methodology, and I can attest that it works and works well. I’m an Inbox Zero kind of guy – all of my mailboxes are, at any given point in time, empty – especially my mailboxes where I manage my professional life.

File it quickly, move your tasks into a system that actually tells you what to do and when, get those messages out of your inbox and into folders and places where they need to be and you know where Moncler outlet they are when you need them: stop using your inbox as your list of things to do, and stop breathing that heavy sigh every time you log in to your e-mail account, whether it’s personal or professional. Chel explains how, and we’ll take a look at some of her suggestions behind the jump.

Chel’s suggestions and my experience may seem impossible to some people – many of us just feel completely swamped by e-mail. One of my former bosses tended to use it as plausible deniability: every time you would ask him about something you sent, even if it was something critical, he would respond with “but you know I have over XXX emails in my inbox” or “I’m just drowning in e-mail, I have XXX unread right now!” It got to the point where even his meetings became reasons for getting another wave of unread messages to wade through.

I don’t doubt that he had that many messages, but his problem was that his inbox was his global filing system, and he didn’t have an effective way of sorting, categorizing, or organizing his messages with things that were actionable, things that were for his reference and could be reviewed at any time, and things that required his input but needed research or required input by someone else (essentially, things that weren’t quickly actionable.)

See that? That’s my inbox (the one you’re always welcome to e-mail!) and it’s completely empty.

I’m a big fan of the GTD philosophy – a lean version, I’m sure Paul Allen wouldn’t take too kindly to my abbreviating some of his methodologies – but the one thing I’m staunch on is making sure my inbox gets cleaned out regularly, and that it only takes me a few moments to do so. If it will take a matter of minutes – and I mean less than five, 15 maximum – to respond to, then I’ll go ahead and do it or respond to it, and then file it away. If it’s for my reference or can be reviewed Piumini moncler outlet at any time and isn’t specific to a project or initiative I’m working on, it goes into an FYI folder. If it’ll take more than 15 minutes, or requires research, or I need someone else’s input to respond, it goes into my DMZ folder.

When my inbox is clear from the first series of actions, it’s time to hit the DMZ and start taking away tasks and putting them into my to-do application (I currently use ReQall for its text-to-speech capabilities and its mobile apps, but I know a lot of people prefer Remember The Milk. Chel suggests Things, Wunderlist, and Thoughtboxes. What do you prefer? Leave me a comment!) and building actual tasks: “Follow up with XXX on X date about Y message.” “Set up a meeting with X and Y and Z and Q to discuss XXX project.” You see where I’m going?

Yup – that’s right: I keep folders for specific projects and initiatives, so I have a singular tome of reference for all project-related e-mails and messages that I can refer back to at any time. When the project is finished though, it’s moved from my active folder to an archive folder so they’re no longer visible and not a distraction to my everyday activities – and my new projects!

By the time I’m finished with my inbox, I should have a discrete list of tasks ordered by priority or the time it takes to complete, as well as a completely empty inbox and DMZ folder. This way I can always reference my to-dos when my boss asks me how things are going, and I should never be at a loss as to whether someone sent me a message or not. Admittedly (and here’s where I break down a bit) I opt to leave my mail open all day. Since I manage it so quickly, it doesn’t bother me. If you get a ton of messages per day, or you know you’re the type to be easily distracted by an inbox filling with mail or the sound of new mail arriving, you may want to limit yourself to how many times you check your mail in a day, if you have the type of job that would allow that.

Back to Chel. She reminds us that our mailboxes are communications tools, not productivity tools – something important to remember. Here’s one of her suggestions that really stood out to me:

Does your job rely on you to always be available? Tell your office/co-workers/etc that if they really need to reach you immediately to IM or give you a call. Set new boundaries for yourself and enforce them.

That’s absolutely killer. Many people – many many people – would complain and whine when reading her suggestions (and mine!) that their job requires that they be constantly connected, always available, and looking at their inbox at all times. I’m the kind of person who can do that and manage his mail and juggle his work, but not everyone is like me – trust me, I’m not tooting my own horn here, I’m a little OCD when it comes to my email, so keeping my mailboxes so tidy is a double-edged sword.

Chel also describes the passes you should take at your inboxes as you’re starting your clean-up process, which are all well worth a visit to her site to absorb.

Now then, good luck to you, and good luck clearing out your inbox – or if you’re like me, your inboxes (or is it inboxen?) to get them to the point where you don’t get lost in them anymore and you never worry you’ve missed a message. You can do it, I know you can – look at me: if I can keep an empty inbox, anyone can.

So do you have any tips for keeping your mail under control that you’d like to share? What’s your secret sauce when it comes to staying organized or managing your to-dos and tasks? Let me know in the comments!

Author Description

Alan Henry

There are 2 comments. Add yours

  1. 27th July 2011 | Chel says:
    Greetings Alan! Thanks so much for sharing some of my thoughts with your readers and finding it valuable for yourself too! I'm glad it helped so many people. It's funny how the things we just do are the things that most people need help with or simply need to hear. Cheers, Chel
  2. 1st August 2011 | Alan Henry says:
    Hello Chel! You're very welcome, and thanks for writing the piece! I'm glad to hear it's helped others the same way it's helped me. I'm more than happy to share it. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for sharing! - Alan

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