Let me get this out of the way: Emails do not always include tasks within them.
I want to clarify this point because it’s important to recognize that when you receive an email, it may not require any further action. It may just be a piece of information that stands on its own. You may want to create a task based on the email, such as a follow-up or a reminder to review the contents of the email. But the email itself is not a task.
That’s why I can safely say that your email app is not your to do list. Instead, it feeds your larger to do list.
Unless you make your email inbox your entire to do list.
Setting that up would involve sending yourself emails for tasks you want to complete, plug-ins that create scheduling options, the categorization of emails into many folders, and so on.
I think, however, making your email app your to do list – other mistakenly or intentionally – is unwise.
Email apps aren’t designed like task apps. They aren’t even designed like paper planners – at least not by default. The user has to spend time and energy putting folders and categories in place.
But there are things that you just can’t do in terms of configuration with an email app.
You can’t really create a scheduling system in email. Sure, you can use folders in the same way that I use them for my email workflow, but that isn’t nearly as effective as using a to do list app for those sort of things.
There are no repeating task options in email out of the box. Tagging emails can become cumbersome. And even if you can, the meaning behind them can get lost whereas with a to do list app there is a lot more transparency.
Bottom line: an email program has different architecture and design than a to do list program. Using an email app with its current configuration or with additional plug-ins still won’t be as effective in the long run as a dedicated to do list app. The reasoning is simple: it just isn’t designed for that.
So rather than spend time trying to make your email program into a to do list program, wouldn’t it just be best to get an actual to do list program? When you have an intentional framework in place, you’ll spend less time in email and more time doing the work that matters to you.
Because there are limitations in the configuration of email apps, there are greater constraints. Again, you can work around them, but that mindset requires more discipline on the user’s part than anything else.
Plus those constraints can actually slow down progress rather than speed it up.
One of the reasons people tell me they like to use their email application as their to do list is that they don’t have to switch between apps. They can do everything that they need to do inside of their email app. But, again, not every email contains a task inside of it. So what do you do when you have tasks that don’t come in via email? Do you send yourself an email? If so, how do you organize them in a way that allows you to see what you’re directing yourself to do over what others are directing you to do?
Interestingly, these constraints actually create friction because there is more uncertainty about what is going on inside of your email app when everything is in it. If you use an email app and a to do list app (or paper planner), then there is more certainty about what is inside of each of them.
The best constraint that an email app has is that it is designed to handle email incredibly well. Email apps can manipulate your messages and filter them and do almost anything with every email you receive. And that includes moving them to your to do list application of choice in a lot of cases. When you use your email app as just that, those constraints work for you.
But when you try to do more with it, they definitely can work against you.
When you use email as your primary to do list (or master list), you are constantly connected to others. Anyone can email you at any given time, so if you’re working in your email app all of the time you are susceptible to the disruptions that can cause.
Those disruptions don’t just happen when an email lands in your inbox, either. There’s always this subconscious element lurking in your mind, knowing that an email could disrupt and divert your flow at any given moment. Working in your email app all the time keeps you one step closer to connecting with others when it would be far better to connect deeply with yourself and your own work.
Even if your job is to deal with emails a lot, having a place where your non-email related tasks can live (a to do list app, a paper planner, etc.) allows you to better connect with those tasks as they will stand out from anything email-related.
The Email Challenge
If you think it is not possible to wean your constant connection to your email program for any length of time, I challenge you to try the following for just one day.
1. Grab a blank piece of paper, date it, and write down 3-5 tasks you need and/or want to do on that date.
2. Work your day as usual but add any tasks that come in via email to the sheet as they arrive instead of just leaving them to percolate in your email app.
3. When you have a break (or breath) between emails instead of scouring them for tasks, look at the sheet you made.
4. Do just ONE of those things for a set amount of time – try 15 minutes at minimum – and hide your email app from plain sight. (BONUS: Snooze your notifications for that duration of time as well so they don’t distract you.)
5. Repeat this throughout the day until either the day is done or your list of tasks are.
6. Flip the sheet over and write down how it felt to work like this for the day.
I’d love to hear how this exercise goes – the good and the not-so-good – so email me your findings by contacting me here. I may not be able to respond to you, but I’ll try.
Move Forward Mindfully
If you decide that you would like to change your approach to email, then I have one last bit of it for you: don’t try to do this all at once.
Try the exercise I mentioned above first. Try it for one day a week, and then add more days over the next couple of weeks. The best way for you to recognize that this will work for you is to see qualitative and quantitative results. You want to feel like you are doing more of the things you really need and want to do. Often times email doesn’t contain those kind of tasks – at least not qualitative ones – largely because not everything that comes into email is a task.
And that’s because most of the qualitative tasks that you need to work on are coming from you.
Sure, they may be coming from someone else initially, but you are the one that is setting them as intentions. Then you are deciding when you’re going to give them your attention.
Making this kind of shift is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take time. Anything worthwhile really does. But you’ve got to stick with it. And if you try to do it all at once, it’s going to seem so daunting that you’re likely to give up.
Give yourself the best chance possible to do this. Start slowly and deliberately. Chronicle your progress. Build from there.
Keeping your email app separate from your master to do list will help you see clearly the lines of communication you have between others and yourself. You’ll be able to do tasks on both lists with more focus and attention than before.
And you’ll be able to get email out of your way when the time is right for you.