Flickr credit: J-NO

Your inbox is not your to-do list

I was traveling a bit over the weekend, trying to keep tabs on what I needed to get done for the Memory Lab. Sometimes it takes the occasional travel experience like this one to remind you what does and does not work about the way in which you organize your to-do list.

I believe in the “Inbox Zero” approach, which advocates organizing all of your e-mails into different folders. Essentially, I use three: a Work folder, a Personal folder, and an Archive. When mail comes in, I drop it in the appropriate folder: Work if it’s something to do in the office, Personal as you’d expect, and the Archive as soon as I am able to process the message. It’s a simple system that works very well; if not 99 times out of 100, at least 49 out of 50.

But all of this breaks down if you start using different devices to check your messages. On another computer without a mail client, you may have to check mail across two or more different web sites (e.g., Exchange and Gmail). Depending on where your to-do folders are stored, you may or may not have access to their contents. And if you’re unable to Archive, they will pile up faster than you can handle them.

And good luck if you only have access to mobile devices. Something as simple as dragging and dropping messages into folders becomes increasingly complex on tablets or smartphones.

The recommendation then, here, is to consider all the environments and contexts in which you’d like to check your messages when developing your e-mail handling system. Even though you may travel once or twice a year (lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective), sometimes being able to access your work is most essential at these times. Prepare accordingly!

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