When (and How) Your Email Can Be a To-Do List

productivity series
When Your Email Should be a To-Do List

This is the third in a series of posts about my search for a simple, lightweight approach to personal productivity.

Your email isn't a to-do list!

If you've followed the latest and ever-evolving thinking in personal productivity the way I have, you may have seen or heard that dogmatic statement somewhere. I've certainly found myself saying it on more than a few occasions to clients, friends, and anyone else who will listen.

And I believe the statement "Your email is not a to-do list" is fundamentally true. Email just doesn't function well as a to-do list.

Most of the time.

And that's the insight. It all has to do with time.

If you've ever used your email as a to-do list — flagging this email red and that one blue, snoozing this one, adding a reminder to that one — you've likely noticed something. When you decide to review your email "to-do" list, you have to re-read all those flagged, saved or tagged emails in order to take action on them.

And that takes time. A lot of time.

In my experience and maybe yours, flagging and snoozing email is just a tech-enabled method of procrastination. It feels good in the moment when you click that little flag icon, but it delays what ultimately needs to happen — reading the email and then deciding what needs to happen next. So you put that decision off, which leads to even more time expended later when you have to re-read that flagged email.

You find yourself in an ever-lengthening cycle of reading and re-reading and re-reading emails.

It's inefficient. But the flags look nice.


The 'touch-it-once' rule

Much of the productivity advice you'll find out there recommends that when you have an input into your productivity system, like an email, that you "touch it once." Meaning that you read it once and then either 1) take action, 2) turn the email into a task and then archive it, 3) archive it straight away for reference or 4) just delete it and get it out of your life forever.

Super efficient. It works. I do it. And I recommend it.

Except when I don't.

I'm a rule-following kinda guy, so I don't break well-established and sensible rules like "touch it once" lightly. There needs to be a good reason.

And there is.


The trap of over-collection

If you follow the touch-it-once rule without exception, dutifully turning each actionable email into a task, you're going to run into a big problem. And that problem will just get bigger and bigger. Your to-do list or task manager will fill up quickly with email-induced tasks. Lots of them. And it won't take very long for that it happen.

Quite a few of these tasks will likely get added to your version of a 'someday-maybe' list — things you plan to get to someday in the future. And some tasks will be assigned a due date that's weeks or even months off. But many of them will be things you may need to follow up on today or perhaps tomorrow.

Reviewing all of those I-touched-it-once email-generated tasks will take time. Maybe not as much time as it would have taken to re-read the emails that produced them, but they'll still place a time burden on the review of your to-do list or task manager.

So how do you cut this problem off at the pass? How do you reduce the number of tasks that end up in your personal productivity system, whatever it is?


Avoid task over-collection by bending the touch-it-once rule

I mentioned at the very start of this series that Carl Pullein's fairly countercultural Time Sector Method had captured my attention. The Time Sector Method promises to greatly reduce the amount of time you need to spend reviewing your personal productivity system by banishing the concept of projects from your to-do list or task manager. If you're interested in Carl's approach, check it out here. (In case you're wondering, I'm not an affiliate for the course, so I'm not compensated for suggesting that you do.)

As part of his approach to task management, Carl Pullein proposes a method that bends the touch-it-once rule. But just for a day at a time.

He proposes an "Action This Day" folder as a temporary holding place for emails that need to be acted on before the end of the day, bypassing your to-do list. I've tried using my own "Action Today" folder — and I've found that it works with a customized touch or two.

Did I feel guilty about breaking the touch-it-once rule? Yes. But I got over it.

Carl Pullein covers the use of an Action This Day email folder in at least one of his YouTube videos. If you're interested in going directly to the source, watch the video here.


If you follow the touch-it-once rule without exception, dutifully turning each actionable email into a task, you're going to run into a big problem. Your to-do list or task manager will fill up quickly with email-induced tasks. Lots of them. And it won't take very long for it to happen.



How to use your email as a same-day to-do list

Start by creating an "Action This Day" folder (or tag if you're using Gmail) in your email app. It will be for the emails you receive on any given day that require a same-day response or action. I get at least a dozen of those on any given workday. If I were to adhere to the touch-it-once rule and forward them on to my task manager, I'd have that many more tasks to process and review on a daily basis. And I'd have expended the thought, time and energy to create the tasks in the first place.

Who needs that?

Rather than creating a surplus of same-day tasks in your task manager, file or tag your email as appropriate for "Action This Day" — or "Action Today" in my case.

There are multiple benefits to this approach. Having an Action Today folder or tag makes processing your email and keeping your Inbox at a reasonable level much easier.

  1. A few times a day, scan your email for messages that require some sort of action.
  2. If you have any emails that require an immediate response, reply to them on the spot if it's only going to take you a few minutes. Then archive the email.
  3. For any emails that require some sort of action in the future but not today, follow the touch-it-once rule and create an actionable task in your task manager for the email. Then archive it. Here's guidance on how you can quickly add an email from Gmail to Todoist, my task manager of choice.
  4. For any emails that require same-day action but that you can't attend to right away, move them to your Action Today folder (or tag them as Action Today).
  5. At certain times during the day that you've chosen based on your schedule and work habits, return to your Action Today folder and process any emails that are there.
  6. At the end of the day, if there are any emails still sitting in your Action Today folder, create a new task in your task manager. Then archive the email.


There are multiple benefits to this approach:

  • Working with an Action Today folder encourages you to "batch" your email processing, which can help put boundaries around the ever-present distraction that email represents for so many of us throughout the day. You tend to process and take action on your email in chunks, leading to greater efficiency and staying focused on your work.
  • Maintaining an Action Today folder discourages procrastination because you into the habit of deciding, on the first read, which of your emails need follow-up, and when.
  • Your actionable emails end up grouped together, so there's no need to go fishing around your Inbox for the important emails you know are sitting in there somewhere, mixed in with all those newsletters, fundraising appeals and flash sale alerts.
  • And most importantly in terms of my own personal productivity quest, using an Action Today email folder (or tag) limits the number of emails that make their way into my task manager, significantly reducing the amount of time I spend in it reviewing and maintaining tasks.


Customizing your Action Today folders and tags

The "Waiting For" folder

After testing out Carl Pullein's Action This Day approach to email and task management, I found that I needed more than that one folder. Carl also suggests a "Waiting For" folder in his system, which is very useful, and which I've adopted. For years, I was adding countless sent emails to my task manager with the title "HBF Someone about this or that" and the tag "waiting." In case you couldn't figure it out, "HBF" stands for "hear back from." It worked well — I always knew who owed me a response and for what, but it added unnecessary bloat to my task manager and time expense to my day.

Instead, I move sent emails that need a response to my "Waiting" folder. I check that, at a minimum, at the end of every day. Once a message has been sitting in that folder for a day or two, I'll either email the recipient again, or I'll create a task from the email if I think it may be a week or more before I hear back. That keeps my Waiting folder relatively clean.


The "To Read" folder

I've also found that a "To Read" folder is handy for emails that may include some interesting information that I'd like to read but don't think is important enough to end up in my read-it-later app, Pocket.

In spare moments, over lunch, and as I'm shutting down at the end of the day, I'll go through my To Read folder and peruse what interests me. To be honest, at the end of the day, I've often lost interest in many of the emails that I thought I might want to read. Pragmatism trumps ambition, and I end up deleting or archiving most of them.

In the past, I had forwarded many of those potentially interesting emails to my task manager as "RVW this or that" tasks. That unwise practice resulted in an exceedingly long and dispiriting list of things that I thought I should review. In the end, I probably ended up deleting more than half of those after they had been sitting in my task manager for about a year, making me feel bad about myself. So why not just delete them right away and save myself the trouble, sadness, and additional workload of reviewing them regularly?




If you're looking for a way to keep your task manager from getting overloaded by scores of tasks that will likely be completed the same day or soon after —and you want to save yourself a lot of time and needless effort — consider creating three folders in your email app (or tags if you use Gmail):

  1. Action Today: For emails that you can't respond to immediately but require either a response or some action that day. Once you reply to the email or take the action it's prompting, archive it. For any emails still in the folder at the end of the day, create a task in your task manager and archive the email.
  2. To Read: For emails you think you might want to read that day or very soon after. Check this folder a few times each day when you need a break from your work — lunch is always a good option. For any emails that are still in the folder at the end of the day, lean towards deleting or archiving them. If you still think you want to read an email or whatever it links to, then add it or the linked web page to a read-it-later service like Pocket or Instapaper.
  3. Waiting: For sent emails that anticipate a response. As you receive responses to the emails you've moved to this folder, archive them. Allow emails to sit in this folder for a few days, re-contacting the recipients as appropriate. If the wait is going to be longer than a few days, then consider creating an HBF (Hear Back From) task in your task manager. Then archive the email.


While this minor shell game with your email bends the touch-it-once rule that's so prevalent in personal productivity circles, it's ultimately a win for efficiency. It prevents dozens of potential tasks from clogging up your personal productivity system, which frees up precious time that you would otherwise spend creating, managing and reviewing tasks.

And who knows — maybe you'll get around to reading a few more of those potentially interesting emails you moved into your To Read folder. 


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Doug Lester is a career strategist and executive coach who has helped over a thousand people craft their work-life narratives and advance meaningful careers. A former Fortune 100 marketing executive and recruiter at a top 20 executive search firm, he is the founder of Career Narratives and has been on the coaching staff at the Harvard Business School for over 10 years. He also leads an executive coaching program for the corporate strategy group of a Fortune 100 company in Boston.

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