It is time to Stop Using Email as a To-Do List

Using email as an activity manager could work, but it is the wrong tool for the work.

When M.G. Siegler started using Gmail’s task feature to convert his emails right into a to-do list, he made a shocking discovery.

As much as 50 to 75 percent of the emails he received were actually to-dos from other folks.

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Taken individually, each request was reasonable. But, in aggregate, "that is a nightmare," wrote the overall partner at GV, formerly referred to as Google Ventures. "There is no way anyone could manage such something without spending almost all their day doing email."

This, the bottom line is, captures the essence of the e-mail crisis that’s eroding the productivity of companies around the world. Email is becoming so entrenched inside our business processes that lots of workers resort to utilizing their inbox as a daily to-do list — a tendency so common that email providers like Google and Microsoft took notice, adding task management features to help with making it easier. But, treating email as an activity manager only encourages employees to invest additional time using an inefficient tool that already consumes (and wastes) a disproportionate number of company hours. Consider:

  • Employees spend up to 40 percent of their own time reading internal emails.
  • One in five knowledge workers cite email as their biggest time sink.
  • Up to 80 percent of email traffic is "waste."
  • Unnecessary emails cost businesses around $650 billion a year in productivity.

As research increasingly demonstrates how email overload takes an excessive amount of energy, erodes concentration and elevates stress levels at the job, the writing on the wall is clear: companies that are looking to reclaim lost productivity have to decrease the email load, stat. Which means removing from the inbox it doesn’t ought to be there — you start with the to-do list.

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Using email as an activity manager is like utilizing a screwdriver to pound a nail. It could work, type of, but it is the wrong tool for the work.

Although inextricably linked, communication and task management are two separate things, argues researcher and author Alexandra Samuel. Mashing them together only makes both more cumbersome.

"If you are conflating email and task management, then your job of communicating — reading and replying to your messages — gets bogged down by all of the emails you leave sitting in your inbox simply which means you won’t forget to handle them," she wrote in Harvard Business Review . "This process also makes managing your to-do-list problematic: If you want to quickly identify the proper task to defend myself against next, nothing slows you down like diving into your inbox to scroll through old messages."

Tracking tasks through email also requires you to keep your email program running all day long, opening the entranceway for distractions. Employees already check their email normally as 36 times one hour. After each interruption, it requires typically 23 minutes to make contact with their original task. All this back-and-forth switching ultimately hampers productivity by up to 40 percent.

"Emails, in the end, are disruptive," says NY magazine writer Jennifer Senior. "It requires startup energy to learn them; it requires energy to reorient and reboot once we’re returned to the duty we’ve left. During the period of a week, the purchase price could be measured in hours."

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Separating email from task management can materially affect staff performance. While email overload depletes the energy of employees, actually completing tasks energizes them — just to illustrate, we all know those individuals who actually add what to a to-do list merely to manage to cross them off! Getting things done makes people happier and more engaged at the job, and employees perform better when they are able to focus on the task they believe matters most.

A highly effective task management tool works in collaboration with communication tools like email and messengers to greatly help employees waste less time answering emails and spend additional time doing meaningful work. And another generation of productivity tools should go a step further — they’ll have to enable employees to control all their daily tasks within a place and never have to toggle between email and other tools. Furthermore, these tools should allow workers to complete tasks wherever they will work — on any device, company intranet or messenger. This not merely provides them with a straightforward work experience, but also gives them the freedom to shut out email distractions every time they have to plow through their to-do list.

Effective task management is centered on efficiency. Given email’s burgeoning reputation as an enormous time sink, it’s obvious that burdensome communication tool isn’t the very best solution. Taking to-do lists out of email and putting them where employees will work on an activity helps minimize distractions, decrease the period of time employees spend within their inboxes, and ultimately, improve productivity.

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