Posted on Wed 02 April 2014

How to save your request from inbox death

I've been struggling to get to inbox zero lately. I've never really had this problem before, but between my work at Buffer and Ooomf and things heating up at Exist, I've really been drowning in emails.

I also tend to work with my inbox closed and notifications turned off. After all, emails aren't "real work" so I don't want them distracting me.

An unfortunate thing I've noticed about this is requests get buried in my inbox and I often take a long time to reply. The problem is that when someone asks me to do something, it should become a task that I can plan and prioritise, but if it comes in the form of an email, it's easier to just leave it in my inbox than it is to translate it into a task.

When I was at lunch with Josh recently, I added a couple of tasks to my to do list as we discussed Exist. Thinking about it later, I realised those tasks will get a higher priority than they would have if Josh had emailed them to me. I think there are a few ways to use this theory to your advantage if you're the person asking for something to get done.

Based on my own workflow, these are good ways to get your request front-and-centre in my mind, instead of letting it get buried in my inbox. Hopefully they might be useful when asking other people to do something for you, too.

Ask me in person to write it down

The obvious example is what Josh did when we were at lunch—he assigned a task to me face-to-face and I acted on it immediately by adding it to my list. When I got back to my desk that afternoon and looked at what I needed to get done, those tasks we talked about at lunch were in the mix and didn't get forgotten.

How could you put this into practice? If you wanted me to do something really important, you could set up a meeting or a quick coffee with me and ask me in-person. Just like I did with Josh, I'd write it down as we talked.

Send me an SMS or call me

If it's not worth a whole meeting but you know me well enough to have my phone number, a call or an SMS will work just as well. I don't keep my to do list in my SMS app or my recent calls list, so it's pretty much guaranteed that I would transfer whatever you asked me to do into my task list straight away.

This works in the same way as catching me face-to-face: once I've agreed to do something, I don't want it to get lost. When we're face-to-face or talking on the phone, I'm storing the task in my working memory, which won't last long. In the case of an SMS, the task is written down but it's saved in an inappropriate place. Either way, I'll turn it into a real task as soon as possible.

Send me an email with a pre-written task

Okay, what if you really had to send me an email? Maybe you can't meet with me because you live far away, and you don't know me well enough to have my phone number. How can you send me an email but still avoid me avoiding your task?

The reason I avoid emails is because they require effort. They either require me to think a lot to craft a thoughtful answer, or they require me to do some work: checking time zones, setting up meetings, finding documents and so on. Most of the tasks on my list require thought and/or effort as well, but that's why they're on my to do list and not in my inbox. Tasks are, by nature, effortful.

So you could save your email from the depths of my inbox by taking out the effort. Summing up your request in one line that I can copy-and-paste into my to do list would make it easier for me to make your task a priority.

These ideas are all based on my own workflow, but if you know someone else who gets a lot of email it might be worth trying these out to save your requests from dying in their inboxes.


P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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