Using Your Inbox as a List of To-Do’s

I came across the following quote which is taken from an article in the New York Times from June 26th entitled “E-Mail Etiquette for Public Figures.”

I once read a popular book called “Getting Things Done” (you can read about its philosophy on Wikipedia), ( in which author David Allen maintains that you should empty your Inbox at least once a week. An Inbox with zero messages, he implies, is important for maintaining your sanity. Reply to everything you can deal with in under two minutes, he says, and file the rest into mail folders (or delete them if you can).

You know what? It sounded so great, so satisfying, that I gave it a try. And I couldn’t do it. I just could not get my Inbox empty. I’m in the habit of treating my Inbox as a “to do” file; whenever I get time, I work through some more of the items there. It occurred to me that all you’re doing in Mr. Allen’s system, really, is hiding your unprocessed Inbox items by shuffling them around. What’s the difference between using my Inbox as a “to do” folder and just putting its contents into a “To Do” folder?

This gave me pause for thought.

If you are reader of my blog you might be familiar with the idea I have that:

— while a user should design a time management system that works for them, users with more advanced skills do more scheduling than users who don’t, and are therefore able to carry less information in their heads, be more productive and enjoy greater peace of mind  than they would otherwise experience (whew… long sentence…)  Click here for the post entitled More on Scheduling.

I think the author of this piece, David Pogue, has made a point that reinforces my observation.

His current system works fine for him as long as the number of emails remains manageable.  In the future, I expect that the number of emails he receives will increase, following the trend that we all have experienced since email was popularized in the early 1990’s.

His current process is as follows, I imagine:

1.  Read email

2.  Make a decision to keep it in order to act on it later

3.  Mentally assign it to a time-frame (e.g. by 2pm today, by Friday net week, etc.)

4.   Move on to another task

Time elapses…

5.  Re-open email (hopefully within the mentally assigned time-frame)

6.   Revisit initial decision after perhaps re-reading it

7.  Act on it, or  go back to step 2.

Nothing wrong with this process, as long as the number of new emails each day is relatively small, and the user has a good memory.

For all of us, however, there is a limit to what we can remember, and over time our memory is likely to get worse, even as the number of email increases.

Then, the user would experience the creeping feeling of being overwhelmed as the following take place, in no particular order:

  • get mental calendar confused in some way, perhaps under stress
  • revisit email when the mentally assigned time-frame has past  (too late!)
  • scramble to fix the problem, if possible
  • mentally commit to “doing a better job of remembering stuff”
  • get mental calendar further confused because of recent “scrambles”
  • complain of overwhelm, having too much to do and getting too many emails to anyone who will listen

The source of this problem, of course, lies in the user’s habits.  The alternative at this point is not to try to remember better, but it might have something to do with using an electronic schedule effectively.

In 2Time, one of the underlying ideas is that users must be careful to notice when their habits start to fail — they might indicate that their habits are simply inadequate for a new, greater number of time demands.  Some practices and habits just do not “scale up” — in other words, they start to become a part of the problem, rather than the solution and trying to intensify them only makes things worse.


(The rest of the New York Times article is interesting, but not related to this particular topic.  It’s a good read!)

5 Replies to “Using Your Inbox as a List of To-Do’s”

  1. Um…I find the implied assumption that Pogue’s web presence generates less email than your’s a bit unlikely, actually. Luckily, though, we don’t have to guess. He gets about 120 a day. That said, it sounds like he is pretty aggressive about filtering out stuff and ignoring it.

  2. Great post! If you think about it, it’s all about discipline. Everyone has an organizational style that is unique and works for them.

    I do feel that keeping your inbox clear is simply a good organizational strategy. And, then have a “To Do” folder that you address and clear as quickly as possible.

    Being many e-mail programs allow color coding, you can even prioritize visually within your “To Do” folder to help you tackle issues in order of importance. Many folks don’t they have that tool available to them to assist them with their e-mail prioritization.

    I have an article on my main E-mail Etiquette site than many have commented has helped them to get a system in place that works for them:

    10 Email Organization Tips


    At your service,

  3. I think that using color coding might be an acceptable alternative to using folders — only the user could say.

    The principle here has nothing to do with the location of the email, and everything to do with the decision that is mentally half-made, and then set aside, which means that it must be revisited. Emails then have to be read and processed over and over again, which leads to their clogging the inbox.

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