Email as ToDo List

David Pogue, the Technology Editor at the New York Times, has caused a stir with his last email update. In it he described a short list of his productivity secrets and to the gasps of GTD/David Allen proselytes the world over he declared that he uses his email inbox as his todo list.

The other database I use is my e-mail program. I’m not a believer in the “empty your Inbox every day” philosophy; in fact, my Inbox is my To Do list, which works great. When I’ve dealt with something, I delete or file it. When I haven’t, its presence in that list reminds me that it needs doing. (I have a lot of e-mail folders. I also have a lot of “message rules” that file incoming mail automatically into appropriate folders.)

I thought I heard the followers of Merlin Mann and his 43 Folders InboxZero program clutch their collective chests. Immediately quite a conversation started up over on Lifehacker.

I joined in by posting…

I love todo list so much I had dozens – Omnifocus, iGTD, iCal, Things, legal pads, 3×5 cards, all of it. Then I relized the wonder of the one inbox, and I have made my email that box. Like Pogue, anything that comes in is filed, replied to, or tossed a la basic GTD principles. What is left over are todo/project emails. The problem with using the inbox for a todo list is the crappy subject lines others pass on to you. Solution: If an email is a todo, I forward it to myself with a GTD verb based subject line. If I want it to show up in iCal’s todo list I preface the subject line with “X-” and a rule runs an apple script to add it to iCal. The original email is Archived. Updates, notes or modifications are typed into new forwards of the email. When the task is done I delete it or Archive it if I am feeling sentimental. I came to this system because I can use it to take todos at meetings or away from my macbook and then send them to myself via my iPhone. Perhaps if Apple had made Todo’s syc I would not do this, but the benefit is that I don’t fool myself into moving an item into OmniFocus and think it done, when it is just nicely organized in a different database. Another benefit of the system? It is application and operating system independent. Forwarding emails with redefined Subject: lines, and sending yourself todo’s will be with us as long as we have email, which looks like it will be quite a long time.

Back in my corporate days, when I lived in Lotus Notes and on a Blackberry, I used essentially the same system, sans the apple script. I BB’ed myself emails titled “T-” and my staff would email me phone messages prefaced with “P-“. And long before SMS we learned to send Subject only emails as short messages.

Pogue also spoke of two really old applications he uses, iData 3, and Now Up-to-Date, both of which have been around for decades. Pogue says he’s been collecting notes in iData 3 since 1988. Whew!

The longevity of some of these apps, and the resiliency of some of the simplest ones, like email, says something about the place we are in along the technology development cycle.

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One Comment

  1. Doug
    Posted July 8, 09 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I’m always surprised when people comment on posts from this site over on Facebook. I run a feed over there and it collects its share of notes. Here are a few from that site about this post:

    LR at 6:23am June 24 Great article. Thanks for posting!

    SR at 8:54am June 24 Gmail lets you turn an email into a ‘task’, so it’s a great ToDo list.

    Doug at 3:26pm June 24 Thanks S, I use Gmail for one account and connect vial an IMAP client ( What I found fascinating was how “old school” Pogue was not just on this point but on much of his productivity technology.

    GA at 5:28am July 8 I keep most of my Inbox messages on my Mac for archival purposes but keep only the to-do type emails on my iPhone (separate accounts for personal and work). I also use Things for Mac & iPhone to capture tasks not associated with email. Things is nice because it syncs on both platforms via wifi so you always have a common updated list on both devices. It also allows you to create single tasks or projects that are composed of multiple tasks.


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