7 Reasons Why Your Inbox is a Terrible To-Do List

Many people — my past self included — operate from their inbox, using it as a to-do list.  I mean, it makes sense; email is generally how most offices communicate and direct work — so why not, right?

Here’s why not.

1. You can’t prioritize an inbox (even with Gmail priority inbox)

If your inbox is your to-do list, which emails do you complete first? Bottom up, or top down? Regardless of your workflow, if you’re using emails as action items (instead of capturing them in a prioritized to-do list), you will never be actively managing the things you need to do. Instead, you are now simply reacting, in order of email timestamp, to other people’s requests.

Further, what happens when other people’s requests outrun your ability to get work done? You lose the ability to focus on the tasks (and/or emails) that are actually important. Anyone, that argues differently is not being honest with themselves. Yes, I’m talking to you Mr. “Mark as Unread.” Bolding your emails only works in the short-term, and then ultimately fails you completely when your inbox grows to more than one page.

More on this one, keep reading.

2. It’s easy to lose track of important items

Managing your email requires that you remove completed emails from the congested mess that is your inbox. If you use an inbox as a to-do list, what happens when that really important unread email gets pushed to page two? The task has just left the building! I hope your memory is good. Or maybe you’ll get through the other 50 unread messages and unbury that email from your boss (from last week) just in time to realize the deadline has passed? Not likely.

3. Email subject lines are not clearly conveyed action steps

A to-do list looks like this:

  1. Buy milk
  2. Feed the dogs
  3. Read chapter 2 of of the PMBOK guide

A to-do list does not look like this:

  1. Re: Meeting on Friday
  2. Fwd:  Please review
  3. Hi!

Unless your inbox is your to-do list.

Certainly some email subject lines are written well enough that little or no further reading is required to complete the associated task. However, for all other emails you are now required to open each email (that you’ve already read, mind you) and refresh your memory on (1) exactly what the email was about and (2) what it was that you intended to do in order to accomplish the associated task. The only way anyone could possibly be more inefficient would be to also print emails.

4. Important details get buried

If you have to dig around looking for the information you need to accomplish a task, for every item on your to-do list, you have effectively doubled or tripled the amount of time it takes just to start a task! This is what happens when email contains your to-dos. Think about how much time you spend returning to emails over and over again, or worse, searching fruitlessly for a particular email in an effort to find specific information needed to accomplish a task. If you are like most people who use email as a to-do list, you spend way too much time searching, reading (and re-reading), processing and determining your next moves.

Some might argue, “I keep my emails as to-do items because they contain relevant back-traffic necessary to accomplish the task.” This is would be a valid argument, except that copy/paste is a thing (unless you are still using only pen and paper for your to-dos — if so, contact me immediately for some urgent help). Additionally, most to-do list programs or apps have a notes section for this exact purpose. Many apps also have an active inbox and an email address to send emails that are automatically converted into a to-do item (the key here is to edit the subject line before you send it, or whenever your process your list of to-do items).

5. Working to an inbox is prioritizing your day around other people’s requests, not your requirements

If you are using your inbox as to-do list, ultimately, your agenda becomes an assortment of other people’s requests. If this is the case, where are the things you need to do? Unless you email yourself, it’s not in your inbox, that’s for sure.

More on this one, keep reading.

6. Working from your inbox requires two to-do lists

If your inbox is your to-do list, where do all your priorities reside? Anyone who uses their inbox as a to-do list that also has priorities outside their inbox absolutely requires a separate to-do list (anyone without perfect memory at least). So in this case what remains are two separate to-do lists, one in random order (the inbox), and one prioritized list. What a mess. Why would anyone purposely do this to themselves?

7. Your inbox is a moving target

If the inbox is where you organize your day-to-day work, every new email changes your to-do list. Worse yet, random things — of varying importance and at random intervals throughout the day — are added to the list. This creates creates a continuous onslaught of distractions severely limiting your ability to focus and ultimately killing your productivity every day.


If you are using your inbox as a to-do list, you are working from a non-prioritized, random and constantly changing list of things to do; a list dictated by others that may or may not actually be important to you or your success that day… or ever.

The solution

  1. Find a trusted to-do list app or system — I listed a few options in an earlier post.
  2. Follow my three simple steps to maintaining inbox zero, every day.

That’s it.

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