Inbox zero and tech-task lists: getting things done
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 17:00
martian77 in DPhil, course, process

Inbox zero has seemed totally unobtainable to me for a long time. I am the kind of person who can easily collect over 1000 emails in a work inbox, although I do try and keep my private one down to a dull roar down at around 300. I've tried filing things, but then they just get missed. So I signed up for this course more in hope than expectation if I'm honest, thinking I could do with the help but not really expecting it to stick.

The course (led by the supremely over-achieving Martin Eve - I swear he has more hours in the day than normal people) introduced the idea of using an email-based todo list ( to clear out your inbox. His reasoning is quite simple and straightforward, but was a connection that I have never made: any mail I leave in my inbox is actually a todo item. That's why I miss things when I move them to a different folder. The emails hang around forever, because I never get around to putting any kind of date on the todo item or defining what it is I have to actually do - they just sit there, making me feel vaguely guilty and think things like 'Oh, I must get around to...'.

I can honestly say this has been a totally revolutionary idea to me. I'm now aiming to spend half an hour first thing going through my mail (I don't get a lot of new mail now, fortunately, so this includes going through some of the backlog) and clearing things quickly as I need, or if they need longer than a minute or two sending them to my todo list and filing the email somewhere practical. Emails that don't have anything for me to do but I want to keep for sentimental reasons (e.g. from family) I file, so I know where to find them. (Actually, even with the family ones I've been adding a reminder to reply. Is that bad?)

It's working a treat! I'm down from 350 to 16 emails in my personal account, and 500+ down to 209 in my uni account. This is a triumph! I've even got round to doing things like reading papers that people have sent me (or at least filing them in the right place so I can find them later), deleting reminders that are well past their deadlines, and filing project-related stuff appropriately! I'm not sure how long this will last - I haven't quite got into the habit of adding in non-email related tasks yet, and my estimates of time scales are currently pretty rubbish - but it's a great start.

Strange how a small shift in conceptual viewpoint can make such a big difference! 

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