I love asking people about how they use office email, if only to better understand the difference between how email was designed to be used, how it's most efficiently used, and how people actually use it.
When asked, many people proudly sum up their email management techniques this way: "My email inbox is my to-do list!"
They usually think this is an ingenious system, but it makes me wince. I recoil in horror when I hear this well-intentioned but ultimately ruinous statement. (My physical reaction, I've learned, is not ideal if I intend to continue the conversation.)
The entire purpose of this article is to convince you that your email inbox should not be your to-do list. There are better and more efficient ways to use email—or better, to think of email.
Hopefully, this article will convince you to change your ways. In next week's column (check back every Monday for the latest in this Get Organized series), I'll discuss the other side of the equation: how to make a smarter to-do list. Be sure to also read last week's column with 11 tips for managing email.
What is Email For?
"Email" is no longer an accurately descriptive name for the software applications and services we use to send electronic mail. They do so much more than that. With all of email's capabilities and functions—the ability to send attachments (life changing!), built-in address books, scheduling and reminder functions, public and private calendars—it's a wonder we still call it "email" at all.
For inter-organization communication, email works brilliantly. You have a paper trail of conversations, all time- and date-stamped, delivered nearly instantly and safely. Email allows you to deal with work at your own pace, prioritizing responses as you see fit.
However, for intra-organization (meaning within your organization) communications, email may be hideously outdated and even on its way to the morgue (see "Is Email Dead?"). We now have a wider assortment of tools that help us meet the same end goals, but in more efficient and useful ways. Instant-messaging apps, business social networks, and project-management portals (like Basecamp) are a few examples. Some people forget that telephones and face-to-face encounters are often the best means of communication for certain tasks, too.
Email certainly has its place, but many people use it to accomplish tasks that would benefit from a different solution. Email should be used for communication that requires a paper trail, especially inter-organization messages. The apps and features within email, like calendars and scheduling, should be used as they were intended. If you want to keep your to-do list in your email program, there is probably a tool for that (in Outlook, for example, it's called Tasks). But the inbox was not designed to tell you what tasks you need to get done day to day. Here are a few reasons:
Reasons Your Inbox Should Not Be Your To-Do List
1. No control over incoming items.
A to-do list contains only items you put on it. Your inbox, on the other hand, is like a spout with no spigot. You have no control over incoming items, except to consider them one by one and delete them—a highly ineffective way to cultivate a to-do list. Messages turn up at all hours of the day. They can come from anyone with no regard to the hierarchy that may determine your actual to-do list. And more likely than not, only a fraction of them will reflect what you need to get done.
2. Ill-named tasks.
For the small slice of inbox material that actually does reflect things that should be on your to-do list, ask yourself this: Does the subject line accurately describe what you need to do? In many cases, other people composed the subject line, which may not be reflective of the message itself, much less the part of the message that pertains to you. With a proper to-do list, you use your own language to get important information across fast. A well-written to-do list is one you can scan in a second or two and know precisely what needs to be done. Only you can write in a way that communicates information to yourself that quickly.
3. Too long.
I know I just stated this point, but it bears repeating: A well-written to-do list is one you can scan in a second or two and know precisely what needs to be done. I would wager $50 that I could not find a single person at PCMag with an email inbox that can convey information in a glance.
Don't kid yourself. We all keep messages in our inbox that remind us of tasks we would like to complete, but won't. And that's okay. But those items do not belong on a to-do list.
4. Lack of tools for prioritizing and setting deadlines.
Red exclamation marks, flags, stars, color bubbles—email programs typically give you a handful of tools for marking important messages. In some applications, you can even associate a "respond by" date, such as today, tomorrow, or loosely "this week." Use these features to remind yourself to communicate with people, but not as priority markers or firm due dates for specific tasks. As mentioned, subject lines never consistently tell you what you need to do, and adding flags doesn't deliver the same valuable information found in a to-do list. A good to-do list arranges tasks by priority and uses deadlines.
5. Prevents your email from being email.
I hope I've mostly convinced you that 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 two inefficiencies! If you try to manipulate your inbox to double as your to-do list, it leaves you flipping between operations. Here's how it might happen: Sort the inbox one way to find the high priority to-do items; spot a new piece of mail flow in; get interrupted; resort the inbox; check the new mail; decide it's not applicable to you; resort again by flags or stars; try to remember where you were with the to-do list…
Remember, if your email program has a built-in app or feature for to-do lists, you can use that!
Email is Email
Keep your email inbox as an email inbox, and not a to-do list, and you'll be much more efficient. Chances are, your work life will become a little happier, too. In next week's Get Organized column, I'll explain in more detail what makes a good to-do list, how to use it, and some tools that make the process of managing a to-do list highly automated.