Why Your Email Inbox Is NOT a Good To-do List

By Leo Babauta

New York Times techonology writer David Pogue, a writer I admire, recently listed some of his best productivity tips — and it’s a good list. One thing I noted with interest is that he uses his email inbox as a to-do list, which is a fairly common practice.

And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I’ve done it myself, I wanted to make a quick counterargument.

An email inbox isn’t the best to-do list, and here’s why:

1. You can’t change the subject lines. This means your to-do list is made up of subject lines that often have nothing to do with the action you need to take. An email that says “today’s meeting” might really be an action to call someone or send a file to someone. You’ll need to open each email to find the actions, which is very inefficient. Or, you’ll need to remember what actions are associated with each email, and that defeats the point of a to-do list … the list is supposed to remember for you, and take the stress away from your brain.

2. There might be multiple actions in each email. What if an email contains 10 to-do items? You can’t delete or archive the email when you’ve done one or two of the actions. It’ll remain in your inbox until all 10 are done, as if nothing has been done. Also, you might forget that there are multiple actions in an email and file or delete it when you’ve done one of the actions — either that or you’ll be forced to remember that there are multiple actions in the email, again defeating the purpose of a to-do list.

3. You can’t re-order the emails (usually). Many email programs (such as the wonderful Gmail) just show the emails in the order they come in. Which means if you want to put the most important items at the top, you can’t. If you want to group all the items for errands, you’ll have to create a label for that and look there. It’s not as flexible as even the most simple to-do program.

4. You can’t prioritize your to-dos. Most readers know that I’m a fan of choosing your top 3 Most Important Tasks each day (see The Power of Less and Zen To Donefor more). But you can’t list just your top 3 Most Important Tasks in email — you have to list them all. In the order they come in. It’s possible to do a workaround for this, and create a label or folder just for important tasks, but then why use your email as a to-do list? Why not use an actual to-do list that works the way it’s supposed to?

5. An email inbox contains distractions. This is probably the worst thing on this list: if you’re looking at your to-dos in email, you’re in very big danger of new emails coming in and distracting you. I think it’s a bad idea to have email on all the time — it makes it difficult to focus. I’d prefer a simple to-do list that allows you to shut off email while you’re trying to get important work done.

So what’s a better method? Simple: choose a simple to-do list and as you process your email inbox, pull out the actions to the to-do list. A notebook or index card works fine, as does a simple program such as Taskpaper (my current favorite) or even a text file in Notepad or TextEdit. If you set up a keyboard shortcut for your to-do app or file, it just takes a second to copy and paste a to-do from an email.

I’m not saying you can’t work well and get great things done using an email inbox as a to-do list. David Pogue obviously manages to get a lot done this way, and I’ve done it from time to time. But it’s not the best way, at least for those who like a simple way to find individual, actionable items, to prioritize tasks, and to work without distractions.