W e Tweet. We update FaceBook and LinkedIn statuses. We even DropBox. Still, so much of our lives revolve around that ancient internet technology known as “email.” We use it to set appointments with friends and colleagues. We use it to remind a friend – or ourselves – about an upcoming meeting. But there’s a big problem with email. It’s called “the InBox.” It fills up with lots of email, some of it important, a lot of it not so important. So, how do you keep the important email in front of your face, making sure that you don’t miss that day’s follow-up phone call or important meeting? The answer: convert your email application that you stare at all day long into the ultimate daily to-do list. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Add New Folders To Your Email Inbox

You want your to-do list in front of your face, a constant reminder of what needs to be done. To make sure your email-based to-do list remains visually prominent, you’ll need to create a specially-named set of folders for your inbox. As you can see in the illustration below, I’ve created a set of folders with the names of the week. Notice two things. First, the names begin with an underscore character. That assures that the inbox folder will sort them to the top of the list. If I did only that, the folders would appear at the top but would be sorted alphabetically, meaning that Monday would be followed by Thursday, Tuesday and so on. So, the second thing I did was use a number – 1, 2, 3, etc. – to assure that everything sorts in a logical order. Therefore, the folders have names like _1-Monday, _2-Tuesday, and so on. I added the hyphen between the digit and the day simply for visual effect.

Special Names For Your Inbox Folders

Step 2: Set Up Your Email Message Rules

Instead of manually putting emails into the folders using the drag-and-drop method (though there are times when you have no choice but to do it that way), it’s easier to create a set of message rules that do this automatically. I created a series of message rules that look at the subject line of each email. If it finds _2-Tuesday or, simply, -Tuesday, in the subject line, it places a copy of the email in the _2-Tuesday folder.

Email message rules to help you automatically update your to-do list

Step 3: Tag and CC Yourself – Putting Your Email To-Do List Into Action

It’s Monday morning. You’ve just received an important email that you must follow-up on by Wednesday. So, when you reply to the email you do two things.

  1. Put your own email address on the “CC” line.
    Note: BCC would work too. The point is that you want to receive a copy of the email.
  2. Put “-Wednesday” at the end of the subject line. (Don’t use the double-quotes.)

When you send the email, a copy will automatically be sent to you and, most importantly, your message rules will put a copy of it in your _3-Wednesday folder. On Wednesday morning, you can check that folder to review the emails that will form the basis of that day’s to-do list.

FAQ on the Ultimate To-Do List

What Software Did You Use To Create This Ultimate To-Do List?

I used Windows Mail running on Windows Vista. I use Windows Mail because it’s free (came with Vista) and it’s a light-weight software application, especially when compared to Microsoft Outlook.

Can I Create The Ultimate To-Do List On A Mac?

Yes you can! If you can create the folders and message rules, you can create the ultimate to-do list.

I Set Up The Message Rules But Now I Have Double The Number Of Emails. Did I Do Something Wrong?

Not at all. That’s the way it is supposed to work. By using the “copy” rule in the email message, each time the rule is invoked it leaves the email in the inbox and it places a copy of it in the corresponding folder. For example, an email that requires a follow-up on Wednesday will appear in two places: in the inbox and in the _3-Wednesday folder. Sounds ridiculous but it’s not. Throughout the day you’ll always be looking at one of two places in your email application: the general inbox or that day’s special folder. If you are in the general inbox and see an email with “-Wednesday” in the subject line, that will help to remind you that there’s something waiting for you in that folder. You can simply delete it from your general inbox, knowing that you still have a copy of it. But most importantly, it means that if you forget to look at that day’s special folder, there will be a reminder staring at you in your general inbox.

How Do I Make It Stop? I Don’t Need Anymore Copies.

After you’ve sent and responded and sent and responded to the same email over and over (whew!) and you have finally reached a point of resolution, stop cc’ing yourself and don’t forget to remove the “day” designator (i.e., -Tuesday) that’s in the subject line.

Anything Else I Need To Do?

To maintain your sanity and keep your inbox tidy, you should clean out your inbox and to-do folders twice a day. I’d recommend doing the first clean out by 11:00AM and the second clean out by mid-afternoon. That second clean out will help you to remember those things that slipped through the cracks and that need to be done before end of day. To make sure I don’t get mentally lost during the clean out process, I set a digital kitchen timer for ten minutes. If I need a few more minutes, I just set the timer for another five or ten minutes.

Is This Really The Ultimate To-Do List?

No. It is not. Unless, of course, you find that it works for you and makes your life better, then you’ll think it’s the best thing since the Droid. But when trying any new productivity tip or technique, remember: YMMV and DNWFE.

Caveat Utilitor (User Beware)

I implemented this system over a month ago. Like all things ADHD, I was initially excited about this. I thought it was mahvelous. After the excitement wore off, I then thought it was a p.i.t.a. But now I’ve grown dependent on it but still, something is not quite right. It’s not the crazy system I’ve developed (and I’m sure others have come up with similar ones) but the nature of email itself. A typical exchange is something like the fictitious email exchange below.

From: You
To: Me
Re: Let's get together -wednesday

We've got a go!


From: Me
To: You
Re: Let's get together -wednesday

Okay. Let me know as soon as you can.


From: You
To: Me
Re: Let's get together -wednesday

Me, sounds like a great idea! Let me see if the wife is available.
Get back to ya soon.


From: Me
To: You
Subject: Let's get together -wednesday

Hey You! How are you doing? Hope all is well. Are you available to get
together July 4th to burn some hot dogs and douse 'em with beer? Let me know.


Two problems should jump out at you. First, the last email sent refers to something that’s buried way down below. To understand the response “We’ve got a go!” you have to scroll to the bottom of the email.  Second, if you’ve implemented my email to-do list, having this in, say, the Wednesday folder doesn’t mean much of anything. It means something needs to be done on Wednesday but you have to scroll the email to figure it out. There are two solutions to this problem. First, put the “action statement” in the subject line so that it says “Get together on July 4th  -wednesday.” That way, when you read the last reply, you immediately know the meaning of “We’ve got a go!” Second, you can decide to delete the entire email exchange AFTER you’ve written down in your paper (or digital) calendar that your friend will be coming to the party.

Last Comment on the Ultimate To-Do List

Will any of this really work for you? The short answer is: you’ve got to try it to find out.

Your Call To Action

Let me know in the comments section if you have tried this Ultimate To-Do List and whether you love it, hate it, or figured out a better way to handle email. If you prefer, you can email me your solution. ;)

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  • Smntdd67

    Jeff, u rule! I always have intentions to read your emails that I signed up for but my attention span wanders off to “less required reading” emails. I love to read and it has slowly been taken away from me by having to much technology = too distracting.

    Anyway I thought of u while I have been trying to figure out why my body has been so sore lately (achey bones and muscles all over) and I’m only 33. Do u think ocd could be over analizing my syptoms or could adhd possibly be making me think I’m invinsible and nothing is wrong with me? Also, I have to get back to that article u wrote about lack of friendships, I’ve come to a conclusion that what u wrote is correct. I feel like my only friends are my 2 kids who are both under the age of 2 and the sad thing is, I can barely find enough time for them – my only friends… Sy

    • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

      Ah…the “gift” of ADHD. It’s wonderful…ain’t it?

      Certainly easy enough to imagine that the ADHD is feeding the OCD.

      And you have to try to find time for the kids. I know it’s a cliche but, when their younger years are gone…they’re gone, so enjoy them while you can…and before they get old enough to borrow the car. ;)

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