From the time we are small, we are given tasks to perform, starting with “make your bed,” “clean your room,” “take out the trash,” and “be nice to your sister.” Once we attend school, those requests begin to increase as we are assigned homework and projects to complete. During high school and college we have further demands thrust upon us as we gain specific interests, hobbies and passions, and as our social calendar begins to fill. Invariably, we begin to collect enough pending items that we seek to organize them in some fashion.
So we each kludge together a system to track all that we juggle in life, from those little things we need to accomplish today, to appointments, to items we need to remember to pick up downtown, to those larger projects in the coming months and then those larger, grander dreams we want to fulfill someday.
To add to the complexity of this, everyone manages multiple roles. Whether you are the CEO of a conglomerate, a college student, a start-up entrepreneur, or a family manager, you have tasks to do across a broad spectrum of responsibilities. You’re not just “a student” or “a father.” You’re also someone who has to “stay in shape,” “learn French for Paris trip next year,” and “remodel basement.”
From what we’ve seen, using one’s Inbox for storing hundreds — if not thousands — of emails as unfinished to-dos is a recipe for confusion, stress, and mismanaged time.
The Secret Weapon is your way out.
We’ve asked many people to describe their “system,” and get answers like “If it is important, I print it out, and put it in my purse” or “I keep most of my to-dos in my head” or “if it is an email I keep it in my Inbox to remind me, otherwise, I put reminders in my calendar, or make sticky notes for my computer screen.”
In virtually every case, most people don’t have a single depository for all of their pending actions. Most have them scattered across different parts of their life: the Inbox, a calendar, a piece of paper in their purse, and a ton of things left bouncing around their head.
In particular, many people use (or more accurately, misuse) their email Inbox to hold a lot of unfinished business. We personally know people with thousands of emails in their Inbox, each one there because of some uncompleted thought, some action still needed, or some other unclear reason.
We doubt anyone finds this a recipe for organization and clear thinking. On the contrary, it’s a surefire way to a life of confusion, stress and mismanaged time.
Think about your own system for a moment, and in particular about your Inbox. The email Inbox typically is reserved as a depository for four types of items:
- Action Items: Things I need to do that originated as an email. I can’t remove the email from the Inbox because the to-do still needs to be done.
- Waiting Items: Emails I have responded to and am now waiting for a reply. I leave the email in the Inbox because the person hasn’t replied.
- Read/Review Items: Emails that I want to read when I get the time (right). Once I read it, I’ll then remove it from the Inbox.
- “Sticky Items”: Emails that I can’t explain why I don’t save them to an archive folder, or delete them. I may just want to be reminded to pursue the concept, or I’m just afraid I’ll forget the idea if I archive/delete it.
Having all of these varied items comingled in one list—that is typically sorted chronologically and glanced at many times each day—is a recipe for stress. Why? Every time you visually scan through these hundred (thousand? ten thousand?) emails, you’re using up brain power, brain cycles, concentration, and focus, all which we have in a finite amount. On some level, your mind is saying, “That’s not done yet.” or “I don’t know what to do about that yet.” It’s a giant ambiguous list of everything that still isn’t done in your life.
To make matters worse, we typically have our Inbox as one system and use some other solution for everything else. Additionally, our system may be anchored at one place, on one computer, that we have to be at or go to for review, updates, and additions of newly collected to-do items. If we use a paper planner, we are subject to its destruction if it ever gets lost.
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