Okay, You’ve Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy. Now What?

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messages that don’t really require a written response, but do require some action—meaning they should be transformed into items on a separate to-do list. Which brings me to…

2. Pick a to-do list system that you like and use it. The to-do list is your repository for action items that can’t be crossed off just by sending an e-mail, but are part of the big ongoing projects in your work or home life. It’s an essential complement to your e-mail management system.

Many people just keep their to-do lists on paper, which works perfectly well. For a while, I was a devotee of the “Hipster PDA” method, which involves carrying a stack of index cards held together with a binder clip and using a separate index card for each action item. But I’m too much of a gadget freak to resist the call of the multitudinous software-assisted to-do list options. (There are at least 500 to-do list apps just for the iPhone and iPad.)

Lately I’ve been using Bento, a program from Apple’s Santa Clara, CA-based subsidiary FileMaker. If you just want to keep a to-do list, Bento is definitely overkill; it’s a powerful consumer-oriented system for building customized databases that can help you keep track of everything from your favorite recipes to your contacts and calendar events to your home inventory. But I like it for several reasons.

First, the customizability means that you can fuss to your heart’s content with the template for your personal to-do list. If you want a field for the status of your items (In progress? Completed?), the due date, or what overarching project they belong to, you can easily create them. Then, once you have a bunch of to-do items stacked up, you can sort them according to the various fields. If you need to see what’s due tomorrow, for example, you can sort the items by date, or if you need to see them separated into project categories like Work, Home, or Shopping, you can do that too.

Also, I’m a fan of Apple products, and Bento makes interoperable versions of its software for the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPad. This means you can review or update your to-do list on your laptop, your phone, or your tablet and wirelessly sync the changes with the other devices. (Thankfully, this synchronization occurs over your local Wi-Fi network and does not depend on Apple’s MobileMe service, which doesn’t work worth a damn, in my experience.)

Of course, whatever to-do list system you use, you’ll find it much easier to add items to your lists than to cross them off as completed. I can’t help you there, and neither can Matt Perman or David Allen or any of the other productivity gurus. But if you can use tricks like folders and lists to get control of your e-mail inbox, you’ll have a little more mental space free for tackling the big stuff.

Wow—I said at the beginning that this column would be shorter than usual, and here I am at 1,600 words. I’d better head off to deal with my inbox, which has doubtless swelled quite a bit since I started writing this. I plan to make short work of it.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail, and you can download Pixel Nation, an e-book version of the first 80 columns, as a free PDF file or a $4.99 Kindle edition.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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