Tag Archives: to do list

My Dirty Little Secret: An Email Box Is Not A To Do List Violation

SecretZenHabits recently published “The Dirty Little Secrets of Productivity Bloggers” about how bloggers and productivity professionals don’t always follow all the rules of productivity. Today I’ll admit it too- I’m not always productive. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a secret- people aren’t perfect and sometimes it’s more fun not to be perfectly productive. Here I’ll point out one way I violate my own rule of keeping an empty inbox, but why it makes me more productive. First lets’ start with the rule:

An Email Box is Not a To Do List

One of the most common reasons people don’t empty their inbox is because they keep it as a to do list. Here are 5 reasons I point out for why an inbox is not a to do list:

  1. Clear To-Do List– If your inbox and your to do list both have to dos then there is a lot of going back and forth trying to figure out what to do.
  2. Have Specific Information on Tasks– It’s hard to know what to do on email message because the subject line isn’t clear (e.g. “fwd: Re> Hi”).
  3. Nothing Gets Lost– Too many messages makes it hard to manage an inbox to do list.
  4. Easy to see new urgent items– With many messages it’s hard to see what’s important.
  5. Clear Head– Everything has a place: to dos go on a list. Inboxes need to be processed.

Keeping an empty inbox helps you know what you need to accomplish.

My violation

I sometimes keep messages in my inbox as a to do list.

My Reasons

I keep messages as my to do list to remind me to reply later that day. I feel that putting it on my to do list may add some extra steps to find it and it may get cluttered with my other responsibilities so I dont get to it the same day.

Now let’s see how my system goes against the five reasons above and may not be a bad violation:

  1. Clear To-Do List- With minimal items in my inbox it isn’t that hard to see what to do and it keeps these important items front and center.
  2. Have Specific Information on Tasks- Being that i read the emails earlier in the day it’s still fresh in my mind what i need to do about them.
  3. Nothing Gets Lost- With minimal messages no dos get lost.
  4. Easy to see new urgent items- With minimal messages it’s easy to spot what’s important.
  5. Clear Head- Everything still has it’s place. Important to dos for today are in my inbox.

As you see my excuse has some logic to it. Perhaps it can be considered an advances hack. As long as I don’t abuse it I’m fine violating this tenet.

What productivity rules do you violate?

photo credit: Duquesa Mercedes

The 9 Ds of Processing: Turn Your Excessive Time Demands into Manageable Tasks

weekend book binding43 unread emails, 1713 emails in out inbox, 18 new letters in the mail, 33 ideas in our head, 4 piles of papers on our desk, 36 items on our to do list and a blinking answering machine. Our inboxes (electronic and physical) are constantly being filled with more demands on our time. To keep our sanity and be productive we must take a short time to “process” our overflowing inboxes and get it empty (or as close as possible). This will ensure that our task lists are filled with manageable tasks.

Here’s a quick mnemonic to making this process go faster and efficiently- use the 9 Ds: Delete, Deposit (file), Deflect, Deter, Delegate, Defer, Designate(calendar), Do Now, (To) Do List.

Delete

If an item is junk or you’ll never need it, get rid of it right away. Newspapers are trash(yesterday’s news is worthless), old magazines are trash(you’re not going to get to it anyway), junk email should be vaporized, old clothes go to good will, you get the idea. Bonus: figure out how to never deal with it again (e.g. unsubcribe from lists, sign up on do not call lists etc.)

Deposit

File your reference information. Many of the files on your desk or old emails are no longer needed except as a reference just in case. If you think you’ll need it someday- just put it in a obvious file folder- out of site so when you’ll need it you can quickly find. Get it out of the way so it’s not cluttering your workspace.

Deflect

If you are definitely the wrong person for this task then quickly point the requestor to the right place and get this out of your boxes. You don’t to do this immediately so you don’t hold up the project.

Deter

Learn how to say no. Not every request that comes to your inbox means you must do it. See if it fits within your responsibilities and/or goals. If not just say “no”.

Delegate

There are some tasks that should be done but someone else can help you with it. If someone on your staff or your spouse etc can do it let them help you especially if they can do it better. Some people get in the mindset that only they can do a task, that they do it best. Given some else a chance. Keep in mind when you delegate you are not completely giving up the task, you will still get the last word and should keep a follow-up on your task list so the issue is done on time with quality.

Defer

Some tasks are interesting but it’s not important or urgent. Put it on your “someday/maybe list”. This way you’ll still have it on your radar but it wont clutter your mind. Examples of items to defer are painting the house (you dont have time for it now anyway), launching a completely new product etc or other tasks that you know aren’t needed in the near future.

Designate

Designate a specific time for an appointment. Just put it on your calendar and move on. An appointment should sit in one central place so you dont double book your time or miss appointments.

Do Now

Any task that takes two minutes or less should be done quickly. No excuses- do it. It will feel great to shorten your to do list.

(To) Do List

All other tasks go on your “to do” list. Just get it out of your inbox.

This post was inspired by: Matthew Cornell’s post The Path of Maximum Productivity: Seven tensions, and how to resolve them. Thanks Matthew.

photo credit: nate steiner

Let’s Fight: Why Don’t You Keep Your Inbox Empty?

No new mail!I don’t like to fight with anyone, especially not my readers but the more “productive” I become the less I understand the need for overflowing email in an inbox. In this article I’ll go through why email inboxes should be empty. I also take on the reasons people think it’s better to keep your inbox full and dispel them. I’m trying to be open minded so let me know your reasons for not keeping it empty.

Reasons To Empty Your Inbox

Clear To-Do List

With an empty inbox all your tasks, follow ups etc are on your to-do list. There is no reason to look through last week’s messages to figure out what you need to do now.

Have Specific Information on Tasks

An email can be a long novel with tasks for you generously interspersed in it. When you create a task based on an email you get to write what you need to do in your own words. This way you see the task on your list as “Run Monthly Expense Report for February” and not “Re: FWD> RE: MC/GRF4 Return Test Files Available”

Nothing Gets Lost

With an empty inbox there’s no email from two days ago hiding 50 items below your visible screen with an important item to do.

Easy to see new urgent items

You have just new mail in your box so it’s easy to spot when something important comes in.

Clear Head

An empty inbox leads to clear thinking. You know exactly what you need to work on: process any new email that comes in and do your to-do list. Don’t underestimate the advantage of clear thinking. At a moment’s notice you know exactly what you need to do today and what you can see what you won’t be able to accomplish. This enables you to focus on what you need to do and not on all the emails around what you need to do.

Reasons Not To Empty Your Inbox

After reading about all the advantages to an empty inbox you’re wondering why would anyone not want to empty it. There are three reasons I hear most often, I’ll counter them below.

Easier to Find Email

Some people keep their email in their inbox to make it easier to find. Searching for an old email is a chore in Microsoft Outlook (and some other mail programs)- you need to go to locate the right folder and even then it’s very slow and limited. The solution is to download Windows Desktop or Google Desktop. These programs are both free and allow you to search your email or your entire computer fast. So store your email in whatever folder structure you want- or no folder structure- you can easily find it.

I Have a System

Many people say they have a system and that system involves keeping some email in the inbox. The problem I see is that with some to-dos hidden in emails in your growing inbox and some to-dos in other areas you may have conflicts and aren’t sure what to do next. So you start with the one staring at you now and miss an important one. The solution is to separate your to dos from your inbox. In Outlook you can use a program to turn your messages into tasks easily like Clear Context’s IMS. That’s the one I use and it’s improved my ability to process emails exponentially. It has extra buttons like “related messages” which works quickly at finding the email that your to do is about. It also includes special quick filing buttons. There much more it can do check out Clear Context.

It’s Too Hard To Empty My Inbox

Many people have hundreds or even thousands of messages in their inbox- to get through that many emails can be a major obstacle. The solution is to transition to an empty inbox and not just do it in one step/day.

1) Move your inbox to a new folder- Create a new folder let’s say it’s called inbox2. Move all messages from your inbox into inbox2. Maintain your old system (if you have one) on inbox2.

2) Start with a new inbox- From now on commit to emptying your inbox daily. Put items you need to work on in your to do list. In Outlook you can drag your message to the tasks icon to automatically create yourself a to do or you can use Clear Context IMS to do it easier.

3) Process your old inbox- Find chunks of your old inbox that you can file away. For example, if you’re subscribed to a list put all email from that list into a folder. Then you can put one to do item on your list- read that folder. You may decide you don’t want to read a certain list. Trash all those messages and unsubscribe. You may be able to get rid of another chunk by picking a date (say a month ago) and decide that you’ll move all those into an archive folder. Let’s face it if you haven’t done something about an email from a month ago you never will. If you need to reference it, you know where to find it. Similarly if you come across a long conversation that is no longer relevant sort by subject and move all those emails into your archives. Now sort by sender and get rid of batches of old emails. Continue your process trying to get rid of chunks of your old inbox. Hopefully by the time you’re done with the process your inbox2 folder will be tamed.

4) Maintain your old system- Keep doing what you used to so you don’t miss out on important tasks. Keep looking for opportunities to move tasks into your new system. Grab a bunch of inbox2 emails related to certain topic and file it in a folder and create an item on your to do list listing the next action on that project.

5) Finish the transition- When you get a good handle on inbox2 and there are just a few items left take the time to transition it to your new inbox and take appropriate action. Now destroy inbox2, you’re done- you have achieved an empty inbox.

6) Limit what comes in to your Inbox- One way to maintain an empty inbox is to limit what comes in to it. Be diligent about unsubscribing from lists that are no longer relevant. Create mail filters that file reference material or other mailing lists in their own folder so it doesn’t clutter what you need to do immediately. Schedule time to check those folders periodically.

This process can take time. Dedicate time each day to help the transition to an empty inbox. You’ll see once you experience an empty inbox you’ll feel free.

Merlin Mann has written an interesting set of articles helping people empty their inbox. He even has a presentation. 2Time contends that “Email Inboxes are a great indicator of professional productivity“. I’m not saying it’s the only indicator but it’s a good measure.

Does your inbox have items in it? Let me know why. Convince me. Are there more good reasons to have an empty inbox- let me know.

photo credit: Collin Anderson