The blog

Previous article

Next article

12 Oct

Avoid the most common pitfall in maintaining structure

Datum: 2011-10-12 12:02

There are sev­er­al pit­falls to fall into when it comes to struc­ture. One of the ones I encounter most fre­quent­ly when help­ing my clients is the usage of the e‑mail account as a par­al­lel to-do-list. 

How this usu­al­ly plays out

You feel that you are hav­ing trou­bles keep­ing track of all the things you need to do and you are com­plet­ing too many tasks last minute. You feel that some­thing has to change. 

You decide to keep your to-do-tasks in a sin­gle place, for instance in Outlook’s Tasks” func­tion, in the Lotus Notes To do”-feature or in Things on your Mac. You do this to improve the present sit­u­a­tion where you keep some things in your head, some on ran­dom notes, some on your phone and some in your e‑mail inbox. 

Things move along nice­ly for a while but then that one day when you are tru­ly swamped arrives, and instead of cre­at­ing to-do-tasks from the e‑mails you receive which requires doing so, you mark the e‑mail as unread again even though you have already read it, since you intend to get back to it as it con­tained some­thing which required action. 

This is OK dur­ing a sin­gle, very intense day, but if you con­tin­ue doing this the next day, you will undoubt­ed­ly end up in the pit. 

End up with at least two lists

The con­se­quence of this behav­ior will be twofold. First­ly, you are cre­at­ing a par­al­lel, infor­mal to-do-list which quite nat­u­ral­ly draws your atten­tion. Since it’s in the e‑mail inbox the action is”.

Sec­ond­ly, you have here­by cre­at­ed one of the worst to-do-lists you could pos­si­bly make. What I mean by worst”?


  • You now have a list where the tasks are not descrip­tive, are not telling you con­crete­ly what to do, but can sound some­thing like: 
    • AN: AN: Meet­ing next week”
    • Hi!”
    • Impor­tant infor­ma­tion regard­ing the rebuild”
  • In order to know what you have to do, you need to open each e‑mail and re-read it, or at least try to recall what you had to do by just read­ing the sub­ject line.
  • You have a list con­tain­ing tasks which might actu­al­ly be sev­er­al tasks in one. An e‑mail might mean that you have to do sev­er­al things, but you won’t know this until you open it.
  • You have a to-do-list you are not in con­trol of. Oth­ers can add tasks to by send­ing you new e‑mails, mak­ing your list increase.

An offer you can refuse”

Would you accept my offer if I said: If you want to, I can pro­vide you with new tasks and assign­ments each hour, but I will be so ambigu­ous in my descrip­tion that you will have to fig­ure out what I want you to do your­self. Some of the tasks I pro­vide you with need no action to be tak­en, but I won’t tell you which ones, you will have to work that out by your­self as well. And when you are engaged in a task, you will receive a whole bunch of new ones.”

Didn’t think so. But it’s the deal you sign on to when using your e‑mail as the to-do-list. 

The way out – do this

If you do not get your­self out of this pit­fall, your real to-do-list will become out­dat­ed fast. By the way, sud­den­ly it might become very rel­e­vant again as the tasks on it pass their due-dates and you miss the deadlines. 

So, if you start sav­ing e‑mails in your inbox to deal with lat­er, use the first oppor­tu­ni­ty you get to make real, well-defined to-do-tasks from them. If you keep your to-do-list dig­i­tal­ly, per­haps using one of the tools I men­tioned above, you will have this done in no time. 

You will feel calm and unaf­fect­ed even if you are receiv­ing e‑mails at high speed. You will be able to pri­or­i­tize eas­i­er since you once again have only one place pro­vid­ing you with an overview of all the things you have to do. 

Don’t fall into the pit!

Do you know of more pitfalls?

What do you think is the largest pit­fall when it comes to struc­ture and per­son­al effi­cien­cy? Leave a com­ment to tell me and oth­ers what you think