A realization about why my inbox keeps being my to-do tracker

July 23, 2010

I have a problem. It's not a unique or novel problem; I understand it's one that a lot of people have. My problem is that over time my email inbox quietly winds up getting used as my to-do tracker, basically regardless of how I'm theoretically trying to keep track of this stuff. I leave messages in my inbox to remind me to do things, and the latest go-round of this has now reached the point where I email myself notes about things I want to do.

Today I had an insight about why this happens: because my inbox has visibility. I look at my inbox regularly, and in fact I have to look at it, because dealing with new email that comes in is part of my job as a sysadmin. Looking at my inbox means that the to-do items are visible, which reminds me of them, which drastically raises the chances that they'll get done.

Nothing else in my environment has comparable visibility; there is no other system that I have to check to do my job in the way that I have to check email. (To the extent that there are other systems I check that often, those systems don't have any natural way of showing varied messages. Sure, I could make my little script that monitors mail queue sizes also show me the top of some to-do file, but it would be completely artificial and I would take it out in a week.)

Looked at that way, it's no wonder that I keep drifting back to using my inbox to hold to-do items. It also illuminates the problem with using my inbox for this, which is that I lose track of sufficiently old things to do. This happens because at a certain point there are enough messages in my inbox that the old messages lose visibility because they aren't within a screen or two of the most recent messages; at that point they almost might as well not exist, based on how much further attention they'll get.

This suggests certain things about any to-do program or technique that I want to be successful. Clearly I need to work out some natural way to make the list visible, in fact to shove it in front of my face on a regular basis. If I can't do that it should at least be highly accessible, in a sense the opposite of my low distraction email notifier; there should be something on the screen all the time to remind me of my to-do list, and it should make getting to the actual list as easy and simple as possible so that I invoke it frequently.

(Somehow making it part of my browser start page might do the trick, although I'm not sure if that would feel natural enough.)

Written on 23 July 2010.
« Why keeping /etc under version control doesn't entirely help
Thinking about the implications of your program being successful »

Page tools: View Source, Add Comment.
Login: Password:
Atom Syndication: Recent Comments.

Last modified: Fri Jul 23 00:45:54 2010
This dinky wiki is brought to you by the Insane Hackers Guild, Python sub-branch.