Inbox Heroes: Mark Hurst, Author of Bit Literacy

Mr. Hurst. (Photo: Steve Worth)

This is a guest post from Mark Hurst – creator of Good Todo, founder of customer experience consultancy Creative Good, author of the Good Experience blog, host of the Gel conference and author of Bit Literacy, free in the Apple iBookstore.

Here’s a complaint I hear disturbingly often: “I’m really stressed by the 10,000 emails in my inbox, but I don’t have time to do anything about it.” Countless users worldwide face stress and anxiety daily as they wonder what important item might be missing in the crowded chaos of their email inbox.

Ironically enough, many productivity systems only add to the stress. You know the kind: “Just add plug-in X, configure setting Y, install widget Z, and use this particular app and this 19-step process and you’ll *begin* to get a handle on it.” This may work well for software engineers who debug compilers for fun, but the other 99.9 percent of users are unlikely to adopt such a complicated system, no matter how effective it is for the elite few who can get it up and running.

Let’s be realistic. Most people need a system that solves their email overload but *doesn’t* require a lot of time to learn or special tools to install. People want something simple, quick to learn, easy to use, and not dependent on one particular platform.

If this sounds right, I’ve got the system for you.

First, realize that the problem isn’t email overload, it’s “to do” overload. The important items that you’re anxious about, that you worry you might miss–they’re things you have to do. People don’t walk around saying “I’m so overloaded by last week’s meeting announcement” or other irrelevant stuff–they worry about what they’re responsible for, now.

So the first step in solving email overload is to understand that email itself isn’t the problem; it’s the action items that are contained in (some of) those emails.

Next, consider what tool is best to manage action items: an address book, perhaps? Or maybe a PowerPoint slide deck? Perhaps you’ll manage your to do list with Microsoft Flight Simulator? No, no, and no (though I’d love to see someone give flight sim a shot). Obviously, they’re not the right tool for the job.

The right tool for managing a to do list is… say it with me… a to do list! Something that can prioritize to dos, categorize them, allow for editing, and (this is vital) separate what you have to work on today from the todos you can safely ignore until tomorrow. This is a to do list: a tool specifically designed and optimized for the sole purpose of helping you manage your to dos.

Now, I’ve got to ask a question that some might consider provocative or even a little heretical: Why would you use an email inbox to manage your to do list? The inbox was built to receive incoming emails, and that’s just about it. Add however many add-ons, widgets, keyboard shortcuts, tags, stars, colors, and flying unicorns as you want–it still quacks like an inbox. It’s really, really good at receiving incoming email.

Of course, lots of to dos come in via email–not all, but many–and it helps to have some strategy for managing those emails. Here’s what I suggest: move action-item emails from the inbox to the todo list, and then remove them from the inbox. (Archive, delete, whatever you want – just get them out of the inbox.) Suddenly you’ve addressed the greatest source of stress and anxiety in the inbox: action items hiding out somewhere in the mess of thousands of emails listed inside.

And once you remove your action items from the inbox, it’s pretty easy to archive, file, or delete everything else in the inbox, too–leaving it clean, sparkling, and empty. Without any distractions sitting in the inbox, you can proceed to the to do list to–finally, and seriously–start getting your work done.

Once your email inbox is empty, and you’re paying attention to your to do list, all the little tactical tips and tricks in the inbox cease to matter much. How many times a day should you check your email? Up to you: whenever you have some free time between working on to dos. Should you use a “priority inbox” feature? Well–to paraphrase a Zen koan, what’s the priority of a nonexistent email in an empty inbox? If you can build the daily discipline to move action items to a to do list, empty the inbox, and work off of the to do list, you’ll be far more productive, and far less stressed, than you can imagine. At least that’s what people have told me, for years, after trying this themselves.

Oh, and if you want my opinion on the best todo list out there–it’s my own Good Todo–which is available as a website, iPhone app, iPad app, and Android app. And read my book Bit Literacy. (It’s free in the Apple iBookstore.)

For Inbox Heroes, Betabeat is curious about your war stories, productivity tips and moments of extraordinary email. Send us an email to tips et betabeat daught com with “war on email” in the subject line and a paragraph or two (or more!) about how you deal with your influx of electronic letters. Inbox Heroes: Mark Hurst, Author of Bit Literacy