Your email inbox is not your to-do list

I get a lot of email. We all get a lot of email. I invite readers of my weekly email to reply to me – and they do. We get a lot of email about Perch. I get email about books, speaking engagements, asking me for advice, showing me side projects. I read and try to reply to all of it. Perch support is dealt with in a separate help desk system and dealt with regularly throughout the day, but that leaves me with a fair amount of email that needs dealing with.

Inbox Zero is not a new concept, but I think sometimes people assume that achieving Inbox Zero means you should have done all the things. I’m not sure what I’d do if I got to a state of having done all the things … find more things, most likely! Inbox Zero is about moving stuff out of your mail inbox and to some other system where you can prioritize the actions hidden in those messages.

Your email is a terrible place to keep your to do list. Partly because it is likely that those items are linked to other parts of your system – files, things in Evernote, posts on Basecamp. But also because emails sat there feel like they are constantly nagging you to act on them, whatever their priority.

How I deal with email

I use IMAP email hosted over at Tuffmail. I only use Gmail for mailing lists, so while I know there are lots of tools for Gmail productivity, I can’t use them – although feel free to share your favourites in the comments to help other readers.

I have a set of daily tasks that pop up in OmniFocus at 5.30am so they are ready for me when I sit down to start my day. The first is to check my calendar, the second is Process Email.

I know a lot of people would suggest that you don’t check your email first thing as it can sidetrack you. However the point is that I process the email first thing, and it’s a very different job to actually dealing with all of the email.

There is always a bunch of stuff to delete or just file. I keep an email folder named 1current and into that folder I pop things like tracking information for things I have ordered that I just need to keep until it arrives.

There are then usually a few things that just need a quick reply to show I’ve seen it. If it takes less than 2 minutes to deal with, I reply there and then and file the email away.

Then there are those things that need more time to deal with. They tend to be things like:

  • An email from a reader wanting to ask my feedback on something.
  • Emails about things that are in progress, one of our contractors with something for me to look at and respond to, or an article back for a second draft.
  • Requests to speak at conferences, write articles or some other paid work that I need to think about and decide if I can fit in.

There are actions associated with all of these and if I start to just plough through them then I could get sidelined from whatever is important that day. Having read the mail and checked nothing is an emergency I add any tasks relating to that email to a project in OmniFocus. The task might just be “reply to Joe Bloggs with some thoughts about his idea of an airbnb for cats” or it might be part of an ongoing project. If the sender would be expecting a response immediately to know when the task will be done, I can then send a quick reply on that before filing the email, flagged as needing a reply.

In terms of filing I actually have a folder for each ongoing project, however you could use labels in Gmail or organize these any way you like.

Most mornings I will send a handful of replies and add around 10 actions to OmniFocus. I can typically do this in the time it takes me to drink my first coffee. My inboxes are then at zero, and I know that no urgent things are missed.

Having this routine then allows me to be less driven by email that comes in during the day. Depending on what I’m working on I may also process email during the day, but I am also happy to scan for genuine urgent stuff, and leave everything else until the next morning’s processing session.

So that’s how I deal with email.

I’m going to write a few productivity and getting things done type posts because when I talk about building side projects the number one question is, “how do I find the time?” I stayed away from discussing tools too much in my book, as I think tools and specific techniques are quite personal. However I’ll share what works for me here and in my next post I’ll write about how I use OmniFocus to make sure that those tasks I’ve added to projects get completed.


Zak Mensah: 01 Jan 2015 at 18:01:37


I do a very similar thing but not at 5:30 ha. My other variation which others may find help is is that instead of using folders I forward email tasks straight to a trello ‘in’ list as that’s where I sort my tasks. So if you use trello take a look at the email to list option as it’s super useful.

Thiago de Bastos: 06 Mar 2015 at 12:38:45

Hi Rachel,
Thank you for this and your other posts on productivity. I am a freelance web designer/developer (which also means I am an accountant, marketer, social-media strategist, business advisor, councellor.. you name it! ) and advice like what you provide make my life possible. I have strong tendency to get lost in my work and lose my priorities, your advice and workflow really helps me overcome this. :)

Rhonda Chapman: 23 Jun 2015 at 09:01:03

I totally agree, definitely no place for a to-do list!

However, I’ve tried various tools and I’ve decided that I’m happier using a handwritten list which I MUST complete each day. It works better for me this way.

In the morning before I wake up, an email which contains my meetings/events for the day lands into my inbox. Other than this, I try and sync all my clients’ project management systems to my Gmail calendar. It can get crazy!

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