Your inbox is not your to-do list

I asked Jesse Garner, my Executive Assistant, to guest blog a series on personal productivity. Part of the reason I hired him in this role is because he manages his time and productivity so well. He also loves to teach others what he’s learned. – Kevin

How familiar is this scenario? You come in to work after lunch one day and sit down to get started with some work. There are a couple things in your head you know you need to do, but hey, you’ve got all afternoon! So you click on your email inbox and start answering email.

Four hours later, it’s time to leave work, but you haven’t finished answering all your email and you can’t remember anything about what you were thinking about doing earlier. What did I need to do again? Wasn’t it important?

One of the biggest misses when it comes to personal productivity appears in how people handle the relationship between two of the four pieces of every productivity system: inboxes and to-do lists.

Inboxes

Inboxes are just what they sound like – places to put stuff that you need to deal with in some way, shape, or form. When you start to think about it, you have a lot of inboxes in your life:

  • Email inbox
  • Voicemail inbox
  • Text message inbox
  • Facebook message inbox
  • Paper inbox on your desk
  • Mailbox at work

You have some other inboxes as well, though these are less commonly considered as such. Your head is an inbox – random thoughts of, “Oh, I need to do that!” collect in there.  A laundry basket is a kind of inbox – there are things inside of it that need something to happen to them so you can be socially acceptable in public.

Consolidating inboxes is one of the secrets of a great personal productivity system, but that’s a topic outside of the scope of this post.

To-Do Lists

To-do lists are the heart of your personal productivity system because they answer the most important question:

What is the best thing I can be doing with my time right now?”

Think about it – if you could say with confidence “what I am doing right now is the best thing that I could be doing with my time” would that change how you live? How you work?

How often is stress in your life able to be traced back to the fact that you feel like there’s something else more important that you should be doing instead of what you’re doing? Most people can’t articulate what that “something else” actually is, but they walk around carrying guilt because they’re “not doing what they should be doing” – whatever that means.

A good to-do list takes that guilt away because it allows you to prioritize what you need to do next. We are all making choices about what to do with our time every second of every day. Prioritization allows us to be able to confidently say, “What I’m doing right now is the best thing I could be doing with my time.”

When you prioritize, you are saying “not yet” to some things on your list. This is the hard reality we all have to face, because we will always have more to do than we have time to do. But the great part about the to-do list is that now I know what I’m saying “not yet” to rather than having some vauge “something else” hanging around over my head.

When I can see what I’m saying “not yet” to, often it’s really not a big deal.

So what can’t I just use my inbox as a to-do list?

If you are like most people, you probably use your email inbox as your to-do list. An email comes in, you read it, you think, “Oh I can’t do that right now.”  Then you leave that email sitting in your inbox so you don’t forget about doing it later. Email inboxes don’t work well as to-do lists for two major reasons:

  1. They don’t have prioritization built in
    Inboxes are just built to hold stuff. That’s it. So in your email inbox you have an email from your grandmother right next to an email from your boss right next to an email from a clothing company right next to an email from a coworker…are they all at the same level of importance? No. But there’s nothing built into your inbox to help you sort it all out.
  2. Not all your important tasks come through email
    In fact, I would venture to say that a large amount of your important work does not arrive in the form of an email. Those conversations in the hall, the boss walking in and asking for something, the voicemail from that prospect, that brilliant idea as you’re taking a shower – these are the ways that a lot of things you need to do come into your life. If you’re just using your email inbox to tell you what to do next, you are probably spending too much time on unimportant things.

Using email as a to-do list is a tempting trap. Email is an easy answer to the question we are constantly asking, “What should I do next?” You can always answer email. However, email is not always the answer when you ask the right question, “What is the best thing I can be doing with my time right now?”

In my next post, we’ll explore the concept of processing, which is how you move from your inbox to your to-do list. It’s a really helpful concept I think you’ll enjoy.

What about you? What other inboxes are in your life? Do you use your inbox as your to-do list? 

Jesse Garner is the Executive Assistant for the Executive Director of Ministries at Pine Cove. He is a masters student at The University of Texas in Tyler, and a proud graduate of Louisiana State University and Pine Cove’s Forge program. When not being efficient, you’ll probably find him hosting a dance party. Connect with him on twitter @jessepgarner.

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