Your Inbox is NOT your To-do List


Have you ever used the back of a stapler to pound in a nail?

I have, and you can sort of make it work in a pinch - but is it the best tool for the job?

Of course not!

Now - let's talk about your email inbox.

Email is everywhere. It's on our desktops at work, on our phones at the grocery store, and on our tablets at home. Since the internet began, companies have invested millions of dollars in development hours making email better. It's not surprising, then, that many of us use email more than we use the web, our phones, or our shoes.

Nonetheless, there are still some things that email can't do for us. For example, does the following sound familiar?

An important email from the boss comes in: you star it. Feels good, right? If it's marked with a star, it means you'll come back to it.

Ah, an interesting and relevant read from a newsgroup arrives - star it! A funny email from a co-worker - star it. A sale on tech gear - star it. It actually feels like things are getting done! I call this the "star it and forget it" technique.

Now, when I'm really on top of my game, I'll put my starred emails into various folders. So where did I file that important to-do? ... Oh, yeah, under: "Important". Or maybe it was under "This Week"? And then there are folders labeled "FYI", and "Due Soon", and "To Review".

Trying to make my email inbox work as a to-do list has been like using the back of a stapler to build a castle, and I've been doing it for years without building so much as a birdhouse.

Here's why email simply doesn't work as a To-Do tool:

Limited prioritization

Even if you're using different folders like important, and very important, and really very important, once a folder has more than a dozen items it's not in order of priority anymore. The most important item could be at the bottom of the list, and you can't put it back on top.

Email is a waterfall

You're probably not prioritizing your day effectively if the emails that come in (randomly, all day) are the default priority. Old emails get buried very fast.

Lack of clear due dates

You can't set a due date for your to-do items in email. Having said that, there is a Chrome extension called Boomerang that I used for awhile to bring important emails back to the top of the list after a couple of days but it still wasn't ideal, especially when I needed to change a due date. (Although it is a very handy tool to resurface an email someone was supposed to reply to.)

Benefits of a separate to-do app:

  • write smart task titles (as opposed to email subject lines)

  • schedule due dates

  • prioritize items using drag and drop tools

  • achieve inbox zero - within a few days of giving up my inbox for task management, I was able to reach inbox zero and it feels great!

  • it's everywhere - to-do apps are evolving rapidly and are pretty much everywhere these days

To-do apps I like:

  • - easily shared lists. This is where Deanna and I share our common tasks, like our shopping list, CD Release project list and Wedding tasks! :)

  • - supports nesting with advanced features. I was using this at work until I switched to for team project management (free for small teams).

  • - easy interface with nesting. I use this for my personal projects management, like for recording music, web dev and mobile app creation.

Someday I will blog about having one and only one to-do list... but I'm not there yet....

What's your experience? Do you use email as a to-do tool successfully? Have you achieved inbox zero? YMMV - hit me up in the comments.

All the best,


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