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Email Folders Are Not a Good Todo Management Tool

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Most people are familiar with "keeping actionable emails in the inbox" as long as their associated tasks are not finished. I do think that this is not a good habit and here is why.

PIM Literature, Definitions and Workflows

In the excellent book "The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff" by Ofer Bergman and Steve Whittaker, you can read in section "Actionable Messages" (Chapter 3, Management) that "the most prevalent strategy for being reminded about actionable [email] messages is to leave the in the inbox". The authors quote multiple research work associated to this habit.

This scientific insight also reflects my personal impression on how most people work with emails that require some action: keeping those emails in the inbox.

The important aspect here is that those emails fulfill a reminder function solely by their presence in the inbox folder.

Please notice that for simplicity I'm referring to emails in inbox folders only. If you do maintain a separate email folder with actionable emails, the very same arguments apply to this folder instead. If you are using modify-able meta-data on emails such as user-defined labels or tags, the whole situation may have to be re-evaluated according to the visualization methods involved and workflows designed around that.

Back to the literature.

In one of the most famous self-organization book "Getting Things Done" (GTD), David Allen writes in Chapter seven ("Managing E-mail-Based Workflow" of his 2015 edition):

E-mails that you need to act on may then be stored within the system instead of having their embedded actions written out or distributed on another list.
[...]
Many people have found it helpful to set up two or three unique folders on their e-mail navigator bars. True, most folders in e-mail should be used for reference or archived materials, but it’s also possible to set up a workable system that will keep your actionable messages discretely organized outside the “in” area itself (which is where most people tend to keep them).

With an important footnote:

If you happen to have a lifestyle that seldom has more than one screenful of un-dealt-with e-mails at any one time, simply keeping them there as a reminder of your work at hand would probably suffice. As soon as the volume expands to something you can’t see at a glance, then organizing them outside your “in” area makes much more sense.

According to this, David Allen not is not only aware that people manage actionable emails in their email inbox (or a specific @ACTION email-folder he suggests), he is also promoting this as a valid simplification in addition and also contrast to the todo management system he is describing.

I dare to object in this case.

The Downsides

In this section, I will give you some examples where I do think that you will recognize situations from your past where this habit did not result in an optimal way.

Imagine your boss sending you an email with more than one task for you to do. From my own experience, this is not far-fetched but rather the norm.

You will do the low-hanging fruit tasks of that email, keeping the email in your inbox. Some tasks, especially the long-running ones or the ones you are able to delegate, stay in your inbox for a longer period of time.

This results in an ever-growing number of emails with unfinished tasks in your inbox.

Whenever you are working with other emails, those old emails constantly nag your conscious self and if not, they certainly do with your unconscious self, causing mental stress. Every time you open up your email inbox. Several time a day. People who practice Inbox Zero (see below) can confirm the good feeling when your inbox is empty by default.

Furthermore, following the "keep actionable emails in your inbox" rationale, you have to re-read those old emails over and over again in order to see ...

  1. what tasks are mentioned (which is an error-prone task, overlooking things all the time) and
  2. what tasks are already done and what tasks are still ongoing.

Emails in your inbox are read-only. This limits your possibilities.

Any tasks management should not consist of items you can not actively work with by maintaining meta-data to track and solve them in an efficient way.

It Would Work If ...

Of course, using your email inbox as an efficient open tasks list could work under certain circumstances. It would be viable when:

Since the first items depends on the discipline of all of your email communication partners and the rest are technological limitations, this can not work from my perspective.

What To Do Instead

Now that I have dragged you down on your email management and task management habits, I should not leave you without an example for an efficient and effective method what to do instead.

My personal favorite is Inbox Zero with one inbox folder and one archive folder. You should refrain from maintaining complex folder hierarchies in any case. Also for emails.

If you follow the five simple steps of Inbox Zero, actionable tasks from emails get done instantly if they can be done within two minutes. Notice that this notion also complies with David Allen's email method from GTD mentioned above.

All other tasks from emails get a representation in your one and only task management system. Of course, it helps when your method of creating a task from an email is as simple as possible. I even prefer a direct link to the original email at the top of the task itself. A further bonus for any flexible, open and interconnect-friendly task management system.

If you do have other thoughts, please do keep a comment below.

Support Others Who Still Struggle With Email Tasks

Now that I may have convinced you to re-think your task management via email inbox, you may have found potential to optimize your personal situation with incoming tasks.

Awesome.

But what about the large majority of your peers who still remain with their old habit?

As long as they stick to their inefficient and error-prone pattern, you should think of adapting your own actions accordingly so that you are able to get what you need from others.

Among many other good email tips, you should make sure that:

I hope it is obvious to you that those tips are helping anybody, even when they already do use a proper task management for task management instead of an email folder.


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