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Productivity Hack of the Week: Do Not Use Your Inbox as a To-do List

December 8, 2015

I wake up to 10 emails every morning and by the end of the day my inbox is treated to another 30. These are all sorts of emails — some are purely communications-related, others are about current/upcoming tasks, some are follow-up emails while others are just distractions, to be honest. All of these emails get read, and most of them get flagged because they are important for some reason. If I look at the number of emails I have star-marked or flagged in the course of a week, that’s a good 10 emails right there that seemingly need attention at a very near future.

As for the question of how many emails actually get ‘unflagged’ out of task resolution, well, that’s a grim number that has barely every crossed 5.

There is a vicious phenomenon at work here. Every email that has been marked important is so I remember to review it and take on its enlisted task at a certain date and time. But because the slew of task (and non-task) related emails keep arriving every day, like clockwork, my inbox gets clogged with too many ‘marked important’ emails, and it is easier to lose sight of what needs to be done now and what needs to be tackled next.

If you have a habit of flagging emails, just like this, chances are you are using your inbox as a to-do list to manage your work, when in fact that’s not what emails are built for.

Emails are not to-do lists.

It is easy to think that answering emails is an honest effort expended towards the management of a task. When in fact all you are really doing is getting bogged down by all the reading and replying to things.

Now imagine having to sift through a whole pile of ‘important’ emails to know what you need to work on next. When you collect your tasks in your inbox, it takes time to identify your next task, and let’s face it, doing this really slows you down. What’s more is that when you start collecting your tasks in your inbox, there is no good way to ‘close’ it. It’s always there — these tasks both old and new — and all of the communications surrounding them, and that’s just poor management right there.

Unfortunately, we cannot completely remove emails from our lives. Most of all communications pertaining to our tasks — be it old or new — happen over the inbox universe. And then many tasks even require that we send/receive emails as a part of getting the job done. But, no matter how inextricable are emails and task management, there are ways to handle this ‘un-organization’ better.

Ideally, what you need is a system that can capture tasks and compile it all in a much more visible and far more accessible way. A good task management system will tell you what project a task belongs to, were do you fit into the entire scheme of things of the said project, by when you need to get your set of tasks done, how much of a task has been done so far, and all that’s complete and incomplete.

Managing your inbox for better task management

Here’s the easy bit. A super simple way of organizing your inbox is by going at it the same way you would when organizing physical paper files — putting them into folders and sub-folders. Adding labels is also helpful, especially when it comes to quickly sifting out emails associated with one project all at once.

Luckily, there are plenty of web task managers that can help you integrate tasks better. Sync them with your inbox and capturing tasks is pretty much a breeze.

Most Windows users tend to Outlook to prioritize tasks-related emails and communications, and set reminders. For those living off of their Gmail, a more user-friendly and less clinical option is to use Todoist app for Gmail. The app allows you to convert emails into tasks, create a to-do list, and collaborate on shared projects — all from within your inbox. Apple users can opt for Things — a cloud-based task manager that syncs a to-do list across all of your iOS devices.

And if all you want is to be reminded of certain emails at specific times, perhaps those you want to reply to at a convenient later date, a great option is to use plugin for Gmail. You can forward an email to it, set a reminder date and the application will ping you back about the email when you are, possibly, in a better position to tackle it.

Using these small, easy to follow, web applications can help you tune out a lot of the email noise and allow you to better take care of the little things that could easily get lost in your inbox micro universe. This way you focus better on actually accomplishing your tasks.


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