Is your email inbox a to do list?

Is your email inbox kept as a to-do list? Often, people leave “to-do” emails in their inbox until they are completed. After completion, the email is categorized or deleted, thus removing it from the inbox.

Using your email inbox as a to-do list can make life simpler for many people, and for others, it can be confusing. This blog post explores why freelancers use their email as a to-do list, methods for email processing, and how you should move forward!

Why Keep Your Inbox as a To-Do List?

The concept of Inbox Zero has been around for decades as one of the first email management strategies. The goals of Inbox Zero include following a system of “delete, delegate, respond, defer, or do” and getting your inbox to zero by the end of the day.

Using your inbox as a to-do list can increase your productivity, make prioritizing a breeze, and ensure that no client email ever goes unanswered.

While not everyone can effectively use the traditional methods of Inbox Zero, once you have set up your email as an efficient process for you, it is easy to maintain.

Below is an older video from a Google Talk from Inbox Zero inventor Merlin Mann .

Email Distractions

Do constant email alerts annoy you or make you feel overwhelmed?

It is critical to be aware of the “email time suck”! Forbes reported in 2017 that office workers spend about 2.5 hours a day reading internal emails, with much of it being a waste of time.

We have this desire to let emails distract us from priorities in an effort to “answer right away” even when it isn’t necessary.


As a freelancer, you likely do not have the sheer quantity of emails as an office worker, but that does not mean that you will not be distracted by emails.

With any of the following recommendations, be sure designate specific times each day to process emails and not get sucked into checking it every 10 minutes.

Methods of Email Processing

There are various methods of email processing, each with unique benefits depending on your work style.

Be careful that you don’t over-categorize everything and then forget where you stashed an email.

Productive Labeling

The most common form of email processing is productive labeling. It can be easily modified to suit the needs of a freelancer. Here are what the labels (or folders) might look like:

To Do
Emails that have associated tasks but do not need to be completed today.

Emails with no time obligation but should be addressed eventually.

Emails that involve client communication, in case you have to reference it later. It is recommended you have a secondary label for each regular client as well.

For anything that you might want to access later, from books to read to items to buy to receipts for tax season.

That should leave only the emails that must be taken care of today in your inbox.


Time-Based Labeling

Time-based labeling relies on sorting emails according to deadlines. It is pretty self-explanatory with labels that look like:

  • Today
  • This Week
  • This Month
  • Eventually
  • Communication
  • Reference

Task-Based Labeling

For task-based labeling, your system is based on what needs to be done. It would look something like this:

Action required
Your to-do list

Awaiting response
Emails you need further information on and are waiting for a response

Tasks you have delegated to a contractor or partner to complete

Tasks that have been completed.

App Connections

Another option for processing your email into task lists is by using connected apps.

Many email platforms will allow you to connect your email to apps like Asana, Trello, Zoom, Slack, Evernote, and more.

It can make it easy to add an email to a task platform automatically. All you have to do is set it up.


Do What Works for You

At the end of the day, how you process your emails and to-do lists depends on what works best for you.

There is no point in setting up a process that you aren't going to follow. Take a moment to determine what method you would actually keep up with before diving in.

Got more ideas, add them to the comments below.

Topics: freelancer

Mike Donlin

Written by Mike Donlin

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