Internet Productivity Self Improvement

How to Deal With Inbox Overload and To-Do Lists in Emails

Mihir Patkar 06-02-2015

Email overload is a big problem these days. Additionally, email is not just communication, it also largely dictates your to-do list. Plus, the constant notifications can be a distraction. We all need a way to tame email.


Tricks to prevent an overflowing inbox 3 Easy Ways To Stop Email Overload From Hitting Your Inbox Email has quite a reputation as a productivity killer. Managing email well can help you keep your inbox clean, but wouldn’t it be great if you got less of it to begin with? Read More are the order of the day. Who better to talk about it than a man who has been looking to tame Gmail from 2006? Andy Mitchell is the founder of ActiveInbox, an app to organize your Gmail inbox Organize Your Gmail Inbox Better With ActiveInbox Read More .

Email in the morning: Is it a must-do, or should you just sort it out for later? What’s the best strategy to deal with email when you wake up?

Andy: I’ve wrestled with this for years.

  • If you do email first thing, you get sucked in and lose an entire morning (a bit like watching a video on YouTube then following Related ones down the rabbit hole).
  • But if you postpone it, you’ll likely miss something critical, or get stuck into something else and never come back to it.


The answer is to do both! Albeit in two easy bites.

First, achieve Inbox Zero using David Allen’s approach 5 Action Steps for Curing Your Inbox Zero Email Frenzy Inbox Zero is one of the most popular buzz words. To truly solve your email issues you need to go beyond Inbox Zero and address the underlying problems. Read More , for each email:

  • Is it junk? Delete it.
  • Can you reply in 2 minutes? Then do so & delete it.
  • Otherwise, action it for later. Gmail (with ActiveInbox) or Outlook will let you specify a priority status. (You might want to reply to all critical emails straight away)

Why go for Inbox Zero? In the words of Merlin Mann…

“That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many messages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be.”

It gives you a clean start to get on with your day.

Action Item: Pick several low energy points later in the day to get the emails done. I advocate the sleepy half hour after lunch, and just before the end of the day. Drop into your actioned emails list, and zoom through them.

Should email be something you check all the time or periodically?

Andy: I think that, if you follow the Inbox Zero approach above, you can check every hour or so to stay aware of urgent things, but defer anything that takes time into more periodic blocks.


Of course, if you work in sales or customer support you have no choice—email is your life!

How do you categorize emails between tasks, important information, and other work?

Andy: First, there’s only two big categories that matter: Is it a task, or is it reference material? Every other email simply gets deleted.


Then tasks can be grouped by status. E.g. high priority, low priority, and “Waiting For”.


The “Waiting For” list is the most powerful one, for everything that is blocked while you wait for someone else to do something. These emails are normally the ones that sink into the depths of our email client, and we completely forget to follow up.

Action Item: In Gmail, keep a label; or in Outlook keep a flag; and when you send an email that you definitely need a response to, mark it. Then once a week, you can drop into your Waiting For list and chase up everyone who hasn’t replied.

Should email be used as a to-do list?

Andy: Yes!

If tasks are already coming into your inbox, what’s the alternative? You’d have to copy & paste them from your email into another system.

This is a huge source of time wasting and confusion, with tasks being duplicated in different systems. For this reason, David Allen advocates “hard edges” (an item should appear in only one list) to keep your brain uncluttered and stress free.



Of course, the main drawback with regular email clients is that they aren’t good at handling those email tasks. Hence, ActiveInbox’s original idea was that emails are tasks. There’s no separation or duplication.

Action Item: [Editor’s Note] You can turn Gmail into a Trello-like task board with Sortd Turn Gmail Into A Trello-Like Task Board With Sortd In the modern workforce, your email often turns into your task list. Well, now you can get Trello-style organisation right in Gmail with a new Chrome extension, Sortd. Read More , giving you the comfort of your regular inbox and adding a to-do list skin in the process.

What are some effective ways of using email to jot tasks?

Andy: If you want to add a task that didn’t start as an email, just send an email to yourself! Then you need to mark it as a task.


With ActiveInbox, you can replace the email’s subject with a task name, set a status & due date, add a checklist & notes, and make it part of a project. It turns Gmail into a full task manager.

Action Item: In Gmail, you can mark an email with stars; with Google’s Inbox you can add reminders or snooze an email Google Inbox Review: A Breath Of Fresh Air Gmail is a household name in the email department, but Google wasn't content with it. Meet Google Inbox, a new way of approaching email. Read More .

Does our inbox as a task-list become just another system competing for attention?

Andy: It sure is a system competing for our attention, but our inbox is already doing that. So it is not another one. The fact that your inbox is a task-list already, without you particularly wanting it to be, is precisely why you should make it your central task list.


It’s always easier to swim with the current. You could try to maintain a task list elsewhere, but if the majority of your tasks are coming from email, do you want to keep fighting it, copy & pasting emails into your other task manager and shouting at colleagues who keep emailing you? Don’t fight it! Make email the core of your task list.

Action Item: [Editor’s note] If you still want to use an external task list, Todoist and let you add tasks directly from Gmail.

Is email efficiency a collaborative or individual responsibility? What is the etiquette we all should follow?

Andy: When it comes to etiquette, the answer is definitely, definitely collaborative. As with everything else in society, it’s about respecting others as much as yourself. [Editor’s note: Similarly, there are some emails guaranteed to offend, anger or annoy recipients 6 Ways To Guarantee To Offend, Anger & Annoy With Every Email You Send Emails are tough. It is really hard to get across what you really want to say in an email, and half the time people will almost always misunderstand you. A lot of the problem comes... Read More ]


Despite being seemingly polite, I think emails that just say “thanks!” or “ok!” are a total waste of time, and thus evil.

However when it comes to collaborative tools, that’s a different matter. Email is an inherently solo experience. At least to coordinate a team’s schedule, you still need your project manager, CRM and IM tool.

Action Item: I’m a fan of 3Sentences. Brevity saves everyone time—even you when you have to rescan the email in the future. Whereas waffling emails are lazy and rude.

Ask Andy Your Email-Related Questions!

Andy Mitchell will be reading the comments and will answer any questions you have about how to deal with your email. Now’s your chance to get that pesky problem solved!

Image Credits: Cairo, Lea Latumahina, Mike Renlund, OmirOnia, hoefi, OpenClip

Related topics: Email Tips, Time Management, To-Do List.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Anonymous
    October 16, 2015 at 5:34 am

    Ask Andy Your Email-Related Questions!
    Andy, amazing Article but will need to be mark as "Advanced topics" for emails; The actual articles needs to be restructure for easier digestion. The sub topics or sections marked an action or solution but the presented instructions created loops and confusion. For the others most experience users talking about magical Activeinbox; this has been implementing since outlook standalone and webversions by using rules and redirections. Apple OSX is still in is infancy as we write in this advance email areas or business collaboration versus Microsoft; is a graphical creating beautiful machine with a screen. A topic for a remix for this article would be summarized by using rules and redirection to achieve everything you propose. Tough topic doe!

  2. Eda
    February 24, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    Do you know of anything like Active InBox for Outlook for Mac? That would be a dream...

  3. Julie
    February 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    What's the difference between ActiveInbox and Gmail's Inbox?

    • Andy Mitchell
      February 10, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      Hi Julie.

      Gmail's Inbox is a simple solution which can be great for a personal email account where you have a few important emails a day. But it is very limited solution for anything else, especially if you want to use it at work and can't risk missing a single task in email.

      Inbox is not really designed to work as a serious business capable task and project manager, whereas ActiveInbox is very flexible and is designed for use at work where you may receive and send many important emails each day that you need to keep track of.

      That's why Inbox doesn't allow business accounts yet. And even without ActiveInbox, there are also many fairly critical features you get in standard Gmail which are missed out of Google Inbox, for instance email signatures and even 'select all'.

      Thanks for the question!

  4. Buffet
    February 7, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Obviously ol' andy isn't too savvy if he uses "G" mail, which seems to be what this article is all about.

    • Andy Mitchell
      February 9, 2015 at 11:27 am


      We're helping improve things for people who use Gmail at work - that includes huge organisations like The US Army, Salesforce, Roche Pharma, Motorola etc... as well as many, many small and medium sized businesses - businesses like Twitter and Spotify who are attracted by the Google Apps for Business package and very happy with the platform.

      I do appreciate that Gmail may not be for everyone though. Thanks for the comment!

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 9, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks for responding, Andy!

    • Buffet
      February 10, 2015 at 12:12 am

      Thank you sir. Your reply was both kind and professional.
      I simply would not dream of using "G" mail because I prefer not to be spied on!