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November 23, 2005

Empty your inbox

This week I talked to two people who admitted that their email inboxes were overflowing and that their voice mail had stopped taking messages because they had hit their limit. Maybe it is the season as everyone is trying to finish out the year, but a lot of people just have trouble managing their emails and tasks.

Over the years I've worked on a system that keeps my task list and email under control, most of the time.

To get your email and task list under control, you probably have to first admit that it is out of control.  Symptoms are:

  • More than a dozen emails in the inbox.
  • Email folders with names like Urgent, Today, To Read, Hot, etc.
  • Your inbox contains several very important emails, but to find them, when you think of them, you look at all the stuff that isn’t important or urgent.
  • You are saving voice mails so that when you have time you can go back and deal with them.

I often see inboxes that have hundreds of read and unread emails.  You are probably thinking that the only way to get to twelve, much less to zero, would be to just delete everything and start over.  (I just checked, my inbox has five emails in it.  It’s not that I don’t get a lot of emails either.  These came in during the last twenty minutes and today is a light email day since it is the day before Thanksgiving)

Symptoms of an out-of-control task list are:

  • You aren’t sure what a task list is
  • You can’t find your task list
  • You have multiple task lists and your monitor is growing yellow sticky notes
  • People have learned to remind you of what you need to do, or you find yourself saying to people “Remind me that I have to . . .”

I have to admit that I am by nature not very organized, and I don’t always follow my system, so on occasion I accidentally let something fall through the cracks.  But without my system, I would have a lot more stress in my life, I would more often than not be working on unimportant tasks and I certainly wouldn’t get as much done as I do now.

Here are the basics.  If there is interest, I’ll write more about how it works.

Use one task list.  I keep mine with me all the time, so I use the one that is built into Outlook and I keep it sync’d with my PocketPC.  Most of the time I’m dealing with the version on my Pocket PC.  I almost never write to-dos down on sticky notes or on the back of business cards.  If I do, I transfer it to my task list as soon as possible.  This is very important.  Multiple lists are error prone and cause stress, because if your brain is not convinced that you are handling everything it will constantly interrupt you for reassurance that you aren’t forgetting something.  If my brain comes up with something that I should do, I put it on the task list.  (When I first committed to this system, my task list had hundreds of items on it, but trust me, it is for the best.)

Follow the age-old advice of “touch it once.”  Before email, people were overwhelmed by paper mail, memos and little pink message slips.  Try to avoid cycling back through the email in your inbox over and over again.  When I sit down to read email in the morning, for every email, I will:

  • Read it and delete it
  • Read it, reply or forward it and delete it (maybe file it)
  • Read it and file it for future reference
  • Or if I just can’t or won’t deal with it right then, I read it and then drag it onto my task list.

In Outlook, you can drag an email over to the task list icon and it will create a new task with the body of the email in the notes.  During the day I do sometimes quickly read an email and leave it in my inbox, but I try not to, and I ALWAYS start every day with an empty inbox. No matter what, I take the time to clean it out first thing in the morning.  At the end of the session, which usually only lasts a few minutes because I’m not starting with hundreds of emails, I have an empty inbox and a task list with a few more items on it.  I also try to end the evening with an empty inbox and a completed task list of the day’s tasks.

By using the task list in Outlook, I easily prioritize and categorize everything that I need to do.  When I can look at a priority sorted, categorized list, it is much easier to decide what is important and what to work on next.  If I’m not going to work on a task today, I defer it to tomorrow so that I don’t have to think about everything that I need to do in the future.  It isn’t productive and it distracts from today’s tasks.

Trust me, you can reduce stress, get more done in less time and amaze your friends with your empty inbox. If there is interest, leave a comment and I’ll write more about how I categorize because it is a big part of the system.  You too can have an empty inbox.

November 23, 2005 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink


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Theare few things more stress-reducing than an empty inbox. Most people are amazed when I tell them I never have more than a few messages in it. Are you familiar with "Getting Things Done," by David Allen? I adopted his method a few years ago and it made a tremendous difference in my stress levels.

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Nov 23, 2005 4:01:06 PM

Hi Derek,

Thanks for the comment. The basis for my system came from a book by Peter Drucker written in 1966. It is still a good book today. I started reading "Getting Things Done" but I never finished it. :-) Maybe I'll go back to it based on your recommendation!


Posted by: Terry Gold | Nov 23, 2005 4:42:10 PM

Yup - it's all about Getting Things Done. It will be a little bit like preaching to the choir for you based on this posting, but it's a great book. Happy Thanksgiving!


Posted by: Matt Blumberg | Nov 24, 2005 8:23:46 AM

Terry, you've been a big inspiration to me over the years regarding this technique. It really does work. There are side effects:

- it's really important to have a good email folder structure so it's easy/obvious where to file something. I used to worry that I would misfile, but now with Google desktop search I don't worry so much.

- this system means you have to stay on top of your tasks. Tasks are easier to manage than email (priorities, catagories, drag to new days, etc.). However, it's critical that everyday you get "the right" tasks on your todo list for the day. It can be very inefficient to look through a long task list trying to figure out what to do next. It takes practice, and disciple.

A big help to keeping the inbox small is having a PDA that syncs so you can read email and delete when you are not at your desk. That makes the desk job easier. For example, I got about 20 messages yesterday from a dist list I'm on with Microsoft. I will blow them away so they don't slow me down when I start getting my inbox moved to my task list after the holiday weekend.

I am *hugely* more organized than I used to be before I started using Terry's system. There's another good benefit: people on my team know that I use a task list to manage things vs. an inbox and they can ask me about priorities and scheduling of things they are involved with.

- Herb

Posted by: Herb Morreale | Nov 25, 2005 9:47:18 AM

I would love to hear more about your system, Terry. I think I have over 500 email messages in my inbox, all of them read, but even so!

Posted by: Verna Wilder | Aug 13, 2006 6:34:15 PM