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12 Oct

Avoid the most common pitfall in maintaining structure

Date: 2011-10-12 12:02 Comments: 0 st

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

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