Your boss needs the updated PowerPoint presentation file by Tuesday. Your spouse wants to know how many vacation days you've got left this year. Your co-worker needs your office pool picks. Everyone gets task requests via email all day long, and it's so easy to let these messages slip through the cracks. Whether your inbox is stuffed with two-year-old fwd'd kitten photos from Aunt Edna, or if you empty it every day and diligently file away actionable email to a "TO-DO" folder - it's still not easy to track the messages you've actually got to DO something about using email.
Let's face it: email is not a task manager. One of the biggest leaps I made towards keeping on top of all my pending to-do's was making a clean, mindful break between email and tasks.
Why email isn't a good task manager
Yes, most email programs have flags and stars and labels and color-coding and folders, but email was built for messaging, not task management. Now, lots of lifehackers have decided to make email their one-stop shop for everything and have come up with systems using those stars and labels and folders and flags to do so. Them I salute. As for the rest of us? Email isn't good for to-do's.
For example, you receive an email from a friend and the subject line is "hi." The two of you go back and forth a dozen times, then decide to make plans for dinner, and suddenly it's up to you to make reservations at Rosarita's House of Tacos on July 14th at 7PM. Stick that into your "TO-DO" folder, and you've got a task that reads: "Re: re: re: re: re: re: hi." That doesn't tell you much, does it?
There's a better way.
How you process email
You've probably already got a system (or lack thereof) for dealing with email. That subject is beyond the scope of this article, but for a rundown on my system, check out my feature on emptying your inbox with the Trusted Trio of folders: ACTION, ARCHIVE and HOLD. The ACTION folder contains messages that you've got to do something about, something that takes more than a couple minutes to complete. Essentially, it's a folder full of to-do's.
After a year of following this system religiously and reveling in an empty inbox on a regular basis, the big gotcha revealed itself. The problem with filing task email away in an ACTION folder is that the messages are out of sight - and for most, that means out of mind. It's mortifying to open your ACTION folder to find it's full of messages you needed to do something about that have been ignored for months.
Now, don't get me wrong. As I said back in 2006, the key to using the ACTION folder is reviewing it regularly. But that's a habit productive people more evolved than I have developed. I just don't open up that ACTION folder often, if ever. I pay attention to my regular to-do list while that folder full of email messages that need something done about them gathers dust.
You should only have ONE to-do list
David Allen's productivity system, Getting Things Done, recommends
keeping only one inbox minimizing the buckets you use to collect all the "stuff" that comes into your life every day. This same principle applies to to-do lists. Multiples confuse and fragment. Two lists of tasks - an email ACTION folder and a regular to-do list - is the sure road to dropping the ball on something.
So from here on in, when you get a to-do via email, you will add the task to your to-do list, which is separate from your email client. When you do this, word the task to be as specific and doable as possible - like "Make reservation at Rosarita's House of Tacos for July 14th at 7PM." For more on how to assign yourself actionable to-do's, see last week's feature, the art of the doable to-do list.
I can already hear the cries of protest rising up from computer screens all over the globe. "Life hacking is about being more efficient, and this adds a whole extra step!! What do you mean, MANUALLY move information from email to my to-do list? That's more work!"
Here's the thing:
The extra step makes you think
Last week I discussed how a good to-do list removes all the thinking from the action. The extra step of moving your task from email to to-do list helps you do this, with a built-in review and thought process. It forces you to articulate what has to be done (make dinner reservations) instead of making your self re-open that "Re: re: re: re: hi" message and re-read everything to remember that, oh yeah, you're supposed to make reservations for dinner.
The extra step also reinforces the "One Minute Rule." In short, while you process your email messages, if something will take you more than a minute to complete, you'll add it to your to-do list. Otherwise, you should just do it. Now that you've got to transfer the task from email to to-do list, you're more likely to just do any tasks or write any quick replies that will take less time than the transfer, because what's the sense in going through all that and cluttering up your list with something you can knock out right now?
Separating out your email tasks also gives you all the nice benefits of a good to-do list: the ability to prioritize, sort and search your tasks. The bosses' request for the PowerPoint file update on Tuesday is more important than the office pool picks (or maybe vice versa), and your task manager will be better at letting you see that than the ACTION folder.
Rename the ACTION folder to FOLLOWUP
So what do you do with those email requests if you don't put them in ACTION? All of those messages should get a reply when the task has been completed, so rename your ACTION folder FOLLOWUP. When you move your task from email to your to-do list, make a note in the task to dash off a reply when the task is complete. So your task might look like "Make reservations at Rosarita's for July 14th at 7PM (followup)." That "followup" notation tells yourself to grab the email out of your FOLLOWUP folder and dash off a reply to the person the request came from once you've made those dinner reservations.
While regularly reviewing your to-do lists is still a habit that takes practice to develop, it's a lot easier when the to-do list is the ONE place you've got to look for aging tasks that need action, instead of pawing through old email figuring out what needs what done.
How do you deal with the constant stream of email requests every day? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, firmly believes in the separation of messages and tasks. Her weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Wednesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Geek to Live feed to get new installments in your newsreader.