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12 Jun

An overflowing inbox is difficult to translate into to-do-tasks

Datum: 2023-06-12 08:00
A man sits at a desk, reading a multitude of emails on his phone. Sunlight streams through the window, creating bokeh patterns. He is wearing a white shirt and a dark tie.

The one who wants to do the right thing at the right time needs a sin­gle, com­plete to-do-list so that you can eas­i­ly obtain an overview of what needs to be done. This is one of the pil­lars of good structure.

And, then there is the email we keep receiving.

For you who pre­fer lis­ten­ing to read­ing, this post is also avail­able as an episode of the Done!” pod­cast:

I always rec­om­mend peo­ple to for­mu­late to-do-tasks for any­thing that we do not do imme­di­ate­ly — even if it” land­ed in our lap via or in the form of email. If we choose to mark emails as unread even if we have already read them, or flag them with red flags, high­light them with yel­low stars, tag them with To do”, or move them to a To do”-folder in our email account, then we cre­ate a par­al­lell to-do-list that rivals our actu­al list.

Sud­den­ly we need to look through two places to get an overview — one where the tasks are clear­ly for­mu­lat­ed, and anoth­er where they come in the form of Re: re: re: re: Cri­sis in the project” or some­thing along those lines.

Too much com­ing at you at once

But what about if you receive so many emails that you do not even have time to read them all? Then there is no way you will have time to make to-do-tasks out of them, right?

This is a ques­tion I get from time to time, which is under­stand­able since some of us receive enor­mous quan­ti­ties of email. So I tru­ly under­stand that fol­low­ing this rec­om­men­da­tion might seem like ask­ing too much when the inflow of emails is in itself already overwhelming. 

No mat­ter what we do, we still only have two hands — at least last time I checked — and can only do so much. If we flag emails with red flags or mark them as unread, we will end up hav­ing two places equiv­a­lent of our to-do-list (the actu­al list and our email inbox) which means we have two places to look through and pri­or­i­tize from when choos­ing tasks to do next, and hence make our lives more com­pli­cat­ed than we ought to.

The attrac­tive­ness of the email inbox

The risk is that we choose to process emails first since we are receiv­ing so many new ones in a con­tin­u­ous flow, and hence for­get every­thing writ­ten on the to-do-list. Not until it is too late do we dis­cov­er that we had tasks on our to-do-list which we real­ly should have been focus­ing on instead and that have to be fin­ished now!”. Yet again we are faced with anoth­er evening in front of the com­put­er work­ing overtime.

If truth be told, we are either receiv­ing too many emails, do not have enough time to process them all, or we are not turn­ing them into to-do-tasks fast enough. Assum­ing that we still want to make things eas­i­er for our­selves, regard­less which of the bot­tle­necks that is rel­e­vant in our case, we need to think of a solution.

Try this

So, if you are receiv­ing so many emails that you do not have time to write to-do-task for all the emails you do not attend to imme­di­ate­ly, then you might be able to sim­pli­fy things by approach­ing it from one of these three angles — or why not all three; a mul­ti­ple-track attack’:

  • Receive few­er emails: It sounds eas­i­er said than done and I have pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten about it, but decrease the amount of email you need to process by:
    • cre­at­ing an email rule that auto­mat­i­cal­ly throws away emails that are prac­ti­cal­ly nev­er of any val­ue to you and which all have a key­word in com­mon that you let the rule look for and iden­ti­fy (such as the word Unsub­scribe”).
    • ask your col­leagues to not cc: you regard­ing cer­tain things which you know tend to spi­ral into a storm of replies and unnec­es­sary back-and-forth correspondence.
    • try dis­cussing a par­tic­u­lar top­ic dur­ing meet­ings rather than via email.
    • for the next few weeks, try notic­ing when you hap­pen to sud­den­ly have a few min­utes over, such as when stand­ing in line or wait­ing for some­thing (the plane to take off, for instance) or some­one (who is always late), and try using these extra bits of time to process a few emails.
    • send few­er emails your­self by try­ing to first reach the per­son you want to com­mu­ni­cate with by phone or via the com­pa­ny chat service.
  • Reserve more time for pro­cess­ing emails: If all the email you receive are emails you still want, but you are sim­ply get­ting too many of them, reseve more of your time for pro­cess­ing emails. If you make sure to check in with the goals you are using when pri­or­i­tiz­ing, and con­firm that the work con­duct­ed while pro­cess­ing emails con­tributes to your attain­ment of these goals, then this should also be con­sid­ered impor­tant work and ought to be pri­or­i­tized accord­ing­ly. If you want to make it eas­i­er to do this, then down­load my refine­ment tool.

    But, as you have sure­ly noticed, many oth­er things com­pete for your time and ener­gy in the cal­en­dar. If your cal­en­dar tends to be full of appoint­ments and meet­ings, then sched­ule more alone time” ses­sions with your­self so that you have enough time to take care of all your cor­re­spon­dence. A while ago, I wrote about how you for instance can play slid­ing-tile puz­zle with your­self to ensure that you have enough time alone to work on these kinds of tasks.
  • Cre­ate tasks faster: Per­haps it is the actu­al process of cre­at­ing a task from an email that takes too long. Here are a few ways to trans­form mail to tasks quicker.
    • If you are using Out­look, then just click and drag the email to Tasks in the nav­i­ga­tion bar, and a whole new task will be cre­at­ed con­tain­ing all the infor­ma­tion in the email.
    • If you keep your one and only to-do-list in Todoist and use Gmail for email­ing, then install the plu­g­in that makes it pos­si­ble to with just a press of a but­ton cre­ate a task from an email, instead of for­ward­ing the email to Todoist.
    • The one who uses Things (OS X) can make use of the Quick entry with autofill”-function and thus auto­mat­i­cal­ly paste the email into a new to-do-task.
    • If you have your to-do-list on paper, then how about writ­ing acronyms for the most com­mon­ly recur­ring tasks and ini­tials instead of names of peo­ple the tasks concern?

Every sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, no mat­ter how small, makes this process a lit­tle faster and smoother, and allows us to process a greater num­ber of emails.

More clar­i­ty with few­er lists

If you make one or sev­er­al of the sim­pli­fi­ca­tions sug­gest­ed above, you will make it eas­i­er to cre­ate to-do-tasks from emails for the emails you will not attend to at once. Rather than feel­ing per­pet­u­al­ly over­whelmed by not keep­ing up with the unceas­ing inflow of email, your sit­u­a­tion will become slight­ly more bearable. 

You also rid your­self of the uncer­tain­ty ren­dered from hav­ing an extra, unof­fi­cial to-do-list com­prised of emails marked with stars, flags or as unread, in addi­tion to your actu­al list.

What is your best trick?

How do you make your inflow of email bear­able and gen­er­al­ly man­age­able? Share your trick with me!

There's more where this came from

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