Many of my clients do this and I understand why. They want to make sure they do not lose sight of what they still have not finished. But by doing so, they are doing themselves a disservice. Instead of letting the inbox be a “place for all the emails you have received but still not read”-box, it becomes a “here are all the current tasks I need to remember to do - plus all the new emails that I still have not read and processed”-box.
The inbox becomes more or less a mess, and the person who was already stressing out over the ceaseless inflow of emails will feel even more uncomfortable by having to also keep track of which emails they have begun working on or not, which are urgent, and which have not yet been addressed or taken care of at all (since it is not entirely sure that they have read and taken action on an email only because it is not marked as unread).
More places for the to-dos
In addition to all the tasks represented by emails in the inbox, they have a list of all the other things that need to get done and which did not originate from emails in an app, on a piece of paper, or somewhere else. When they are about to decide what to do next, they take a look at the list, in the calendar, and in the rather unclear inbox. Several places need to be consulted and it becomes much more difficult to prioritize than it should be.
Improve the inbox
Make it easier for yourself. Refine and improve your inbox so that it only contains emails you still have not read or done something with. Add what you need to do as a consequence of receiving an email to the place where you keep all your other tasks - your to-do list or calendar (depending on if it relates to a specific date and time or not) - and save the email somewhere else than in your inbox; in one big subfolder, in a folder structure, or amongst other information regarding the same topic.
If this all sounds familiar, do the following:
Transfer all emails that are currently in your inbox which you are completely done with somewhere else - if so only into one big “Archive”-folder. You will not have to see them several times a day but can still find an email quickly if you should need it.
Write a to-do task that defines what the next thing you need to do for every email still in your inbox is. Add these to-do tasks to your to-do list and refer back to the email if you need to find it when working on the task in question. If you use a digital to-do list such as the Tasks-function in Outlook, Microsoft To-Do, or Todoist, most of this can be done automatically.
Save the emails you have created to-do tasks for somewhere else as well. They no longer need to be left in the inbox for you to not lose sight of them since this is not where you keep track of what to do.
Alright then. You have now refined and improved your inbox since it no longer contains emails you have either read or already addressed.
Make it clear what’s what
If you do not let the email remain in the inbox until the task is completed, you will have fewer places to look through when choosing what to do next. Your next task is chosen based on how urgent and important it is, rather than where it happened to be and how it ended up on your radar. You no longer have to feel that there are to-do tasks lurking in the inbox, somewhere amongst all the other emails just left there, but will have a complete overview in your now single to-do list. Being more organized will give you more peace of mind and a more balanced work-life.
What’s your way?
How do you keep your inbox nice and neat? Write to me at email@example.com and tell me about how you keep it fully functional.
By the way, right now, when you as well as many others are probably working remotely to a greater extent than you used to, I am particularly interested in what you find difficult when it comes to being structured and maintaining good structure. I want to write about things that are truly helpful and meaningful to you, so if you are struggling with something in particular, let me know.
Thank you for reading this edition of Done! and see you again next week.