Don't let your Inbox run your life

Several times per year, I start feeling very overwhelmed by all the work that must be done. At the same time, I start feeling sad about the work that could get done, but isn't.

I recently came to the conclusion that one of the reasons for that was that I let my professional life be dictated by my email Inbox. This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I have spent quite a lot of effort to automatically filter much of the stuff that isn't time-sentitive into folders. Years ago, I have also turned off all email notifications, thinking that it would help not getting overwhelmed.

Obviously, that wasn't enough.

So, on top of all of that, I have adopted a new approach that seems to be working well for me. It is based on the simple premise that Email is not a To Do manager.

Sure; many To Do items will come in via email. Explicitly recognizing them as To Do-items, and taking the effort to manage them separately from email is indeed a bit more work in the short term. However, that short-term effort pays back in long-term piece of mind.

The Inbox-0 movement is not new, and I did not invent it. I have tried many times to adopt it, since I have always like the idea. This is the first time that I feel that I might have found a method that is based on its ideas, but omits some of its shortcomings.

For the last month, I have used the following principles:

  1. Reading email and properly responding to it is a task in its own right. Do not confuse it for overhead, and make sure to only open your Inbox when you can spend time on processing it properly.

  2. Be generous with delete. Much of the email we get is unnecessary and does not warrant your (scarce/valuable) intellectual cyles.

  3. Email is not a To Do-manager. A To Do-manager is a To Do-manager.

  4. If you choose not to delete an email, your options are:

    1. Respond immediately
    2. Archive (away from Inbox) for later reference
    3. Create a To Do-list item to address it
  5. Do not stop this cycle until your Inbox is empty.

In tandem with this switch, I also turned off Google's conversation view. I wish I could go back to "old school" email threading, but I understand that the Gmail approach is different and doesn't allow for that. However, turning the feature off allows me to consider each email that makes it to my Inbox separately.

I chose to use the Things To Do-manager. It has a number of features I was looking for, even though it is not the cheapest one out there. Specifically, I looked for:

Things provided all of these. I wish there were a Windows and/or a Web App of the manager as well, but since my primary productivity infrastructure consists of a Macbook and an iPhone, this wasn't a deal breaker.