Why you should stop using your inbox as a to do list. / by Chel Wolverton

Our inboxes are the hubs of our daily lives.  Some of us check email first thing when we roll out of bed.  (That's a bad habit too!)  They store notes from various people that are important to us on some level trying to get our attention. But if we start to use it as a way of keeping track of the things we need to get done, problems emerge. See one email but there are 3 tasks attached, one with a deadline?  Get distracted by all the things that keep coming in instead of focusing on the tasks that need your attention?  These create stress. If you ever cringe upon logging in that means you have a problem.  Let's fix that.  How?

Change your mindset.

Your inbox is a communications tool, not a productivity tool.

Here's how to start using it that way:

1. Archive (or delete) the last month.  Let's say if you're reading this today, anytime before March 1st.  Delete it.  It's done. If it's important you're missing something, someone probably has or will shortly clue you in.

2. Get a to do list.  What/where doesn't really matter, what matters is that you'll use it.  Every day.  It needs to be open in your browser for the majority of the day instead of your email.  I can recommend Things, Wunderlist, and Thoughtboxes.

Thoughtboxes is my favorite, it's easy to use and I love the format.  There are apps coming soon, for now the browser will work everywhere.

3. If you use Gmail, learn the keyboard shortcuts, even if you need to print them out or put them on your iDevice in front of your face, learn them. If you find yourself typing signatures and other bits of text repeatedly, get something like Typinator to store it and use the shortcuts to expand the text. Both will save you time. 4. First round, delete everything that you don't need to read. Coupons, twitter notifications, email newsletters (though I might get smacked on the head by Chris and DJ for that).  Everything that doesn't absolutely need your attention, trash it.  Oh, and no guilt is allowed.  Your time is important, it's okay to be protective of it.

5. Second round, scan everything that is left.  If you need to respond in anyway, leave it.  If it's just information that you need to recall for later, read/process it, put it in Evernote (affiliate link) or wherever you store things.  If there are one or two that you can't bring yourself to archive, that's okay.

7. Third round, everything that is left should be something that goes on the to do list as a task or needs a response from you.  Put the tasks on the to do list now.  Handy tip: In Gmail when you have an email open, the URL of that email is unique, copy and paste it into your to do list and click the link to bring it up when the task is finished and you are ready to respond.  Archive everything that goes on your list and that you respond to.

8. Fourth and final round.  Answer everything that will take no longer than 2 minutes for each email. Then archive.  Remember that handy tip in my last post, the send and archive button?  Activate it in Google Labs, it will save you keystrokes.

Once you are done with these steps then you should have a relatively clean inbox.  Not inbox zero?  It's not the end of the world, you've made significant progress in creating new habits.

Here's the secret: You have to follow this process every day.  When you wake up, don't check your inbox, check your to do list. Then start on those tasks immediately and first.  Save opening your inbox until mid-morning (or later if you can stand it).  That way you get through some parts of your day without being swamped by feeling like the world is waiting for a response.

Does your job rely on you to always be available?  Tell your office/co-workers/etc that if they really need to reach you immediately to IM or give you a call.  Set new boundaries for yourself and enforce them.

Let me know how this works for you in the comments!

Need help to be more productive?  Email me!