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Organizing Series: How to clear your To Do List, Emails, Letters on a daily basis

If there is one thing I can’t really stand, it is having stuff left on your To Do list.

It drives me crazy to see my Inbox full of emails, or my desktop full of icons, or a list that keeps getting pushed to the next day.

I use this basic method to deal with everything below:

1. Review Outstanding/Pending Items

2. Open and Read Item

3. Take Action on Item:

  • Do the task immediately
  • Take a Note to do it in the future
  • File It Away after it’s been noted and/or completed
  • Leave it as Outstanding/Pending to be reviewed again later

Every morning I clean my desktop, and I also go through my Inbox of emails. It takes me less than a minute because my organization is down pat.

Anything left in either of those areas is either outstanding or pending, and I make it a point to review what it is first.

Let me explain…


Every time I touch an email, I do something with it after reading it.

Do the task immediately

If it’s an email I can quickly forward to someone, I do it right away instead of waiting until later and forgetting.

If it’s something that can be done in 30 seconds or less, it gets done so it’s off my back.

Take a Note to do it in the future

If it’s a dinner or an event I have to attend, I put it immediately in my iPod Touch with the ToDo app, and put in all the details (time, place, who and when).

If I need directions to get there (more often than not), I make a separate note to “get directions to Plaza A” on my To Do list. Not having a smartphone with a constant internet connection is both a blessing and a curse — I have to be a lot more organized as a result.

Or I do it right away, if I have time.

Also, for any kind of event or place, I always make a new entry in my Contacts as well, this is just an extra bit of “just-in-case” organization I do so that I don’t ever lose the address in case in the future I want to know where it was.


File it Away after it’s been noted and/or completed

WIth the above examples, after I forward the email or make a note, I Archive it immediately so it’s out of my Inbox, and the details have already been recorded.

Leave it as Outstanding/Pending to be reviewed again later

There are the rare instances of emails that I don’t want to file away (maybe they have a tracking number for a package I am waiting for, and it’s a lot easier to click on the link than to copy and paste the number).

In that case, I leave the email in my Inbox. It serves as a constant reminder that I am waiting for a package and it hasn’t been delivered.

Then if a month goes by (or longer), I will know that it has been too long just by looking at the date of the email, and I can take the next step to get in touch with the company.

Then every morning when I log into my Inbox, I review what’s left in there as reminders for me that things are still outstanding.



When I receive snail mail, it’s slightly different in terms of actions, but the same principles.

I’ve tried my BEST to cut down on snail mail.

When people mail me junk, credit card offers or anything that is just annoying, I contact them right away to get taken off their mailing/marketing/promotional lists, and/or I send back their letters to them, voided, with a note saying:

Please remove me from all of your mailing lists and never contact me again.

It’s worked pretty well. I rarely get useless or junky snail mail now, but it does take time and effort to do it.

Do the task immediately

When I receive a letter, let’s say a letter that I need to renew my health insurance, if I have the time, I go online and I take care of it immediately.

If it’s something that I can’t take care of within the deadline, I call the company right away to inform them of the situation. They’re usually quite happy that I do so, because most people don’t even bother replying, then it becomes a bigger headache to sort out.

Take a Note to do it in the future

Or, I make a note in my iPod Touch, and set up a time to go and take care of that renewal ASAP. I never like leaving anything to the last minute because inevitably, something will come up and I will miss the deadline or forget.

File It Away after it’s been noted and/or completed

When I am done with the task, I either put it in my bag To Shred (if it’s junk mail with my address and name on it), or I put it in my folder To Scan so that I cut down on paper, have an electronic copy of whatever the letter was and I can archive it.

The To Shred bag is just as good as deleting it.

For scanning, I wait until I have a few papers (or if I’m bored, I do it right way), and I scan everything with my beloved Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100 portable and super light travel scanner.

Note: I actually bought it sight unseen right from Amazon because I could NOT find it in-stores to purchase or touch (very annoying). I’ve been very pleased with it so far.

For any kind of greeting card, I also scan it. It might seem very unsentimental to folks who like to keep everything they’ve ever received in snail mail because it’s a dying privilege to receive such things in the mail now, but if I did that, I’d have a box of greeting cards to carry around with me for life.

Leave it as Outstanding/Pending to be reviewed again later

This goes with if I get something to renew something like my health insurance and I can’t do it right away, I put it in my “To Do” folder (yes, literally marked as “To Do”), and I open the folder each morning to see what’s left.



So now it comes down to my To Do list on my iPod touch.

For this particular To Do list, I always set realistic expectations with the 3-a-day rule.

I only give myself 3 important, have-to-get-done tasks to do a day.

Any more, and I’m asking for trouble and heartache.

If I can get more than 3 done, I’m happy, but this never happens.

So for instance when I make a note after receiving an email or a piece of snail mail, I make sure not to schedule anything on that day that will conflict with something else, or will be less than 3 hours apart.


I hate being rushed and I hate feeling rushed.

I don’t want to go to lunch with a friend, only to beg to leave a bit early so I can make it to a doctor’s appointment.

I’d rather do those things on two separate days so I have time at my leisure to do what I want.

I also have a mental priority list in my head.

Anything like renewing a health insurance card or related banking, will trump going out to buy more tea because I’m running low.

I know that I have to get my renewal done first, and then the tea will get done later on when/if I have time. Otherwise, I reschedule that lower priority item.



  • SarahN

    Loved this post.

    I have a stellar email management with work inbox and personal. I pity the man who doesn’t. That being said, I wish my work email allows for multi tagging, like gmail, rather than an arbitrary folder :s Like you, I live emails in the inbox for easy grabbing (like a booking imminently) or for action. If I’ve delegated, I do try to file, but I have certain tasks I like to ‘follow up on’ as I haven’t got the perfect feedback levels from the staff I have delegated to 🙁 For this reason, anything referred to me from the call centre, and a customer, I always reply to the call centre, so they know, and in many cases, ask for them to let the customer know it’s resolved (as we’re tracked on customer satisfaction, I bet this proactive approach can help a bit).

    Snail mail – so little. The shares get put on a shelf for periodic hole punching and filing in the binders. Bills into the purse for payment at work (it’s just likely when it’ll happen). I also have a magnetic pin board for ‘pretties’ – invites, cards, certificates, photos. Periodically removed and into a shoe box. Which make small bundles each year.

    I don’t ‘do’ voicemail. Yes I get them. I seldom clear them. I process written word much better, and order my thoughts better in writing (though I don’t edit much ever!). My desk phone sadly flashes orange with voicemails, so I clear them sooner than my mobiles (work & personal). Personal are 90% my mother saying “HI pop, it’s mum” and hanging up. (Pop is a nickname). If I get a work call in a meeting, I’ll send a text which says ‘anything I can sort out via text?’ which helps me get things into my preferred communication method. Sadly, four out of five of my direct reports prefer face to face talking. Le sigh…


      I much prefer doing emails. I think being able to reply to 50 people at once and not getting sidetracked into conversations that have nothing to do with work are what annoy me the most about calling or face to face chats.

  • Lisa

    These are great tips! Ideally this is the type of system I want to get to. Very GTD.

    For junk mail, I use an app called PaperKarma. It’s free and it essentially does what you do – contacts the sender and gets you off their mailing list. You simply take a picture of the mail and they’ll take it from there!

  • Sense

    I used to be able to trust myself, and hold all of my appointments/commitments in my head easily.

    But either my brain is rotting or I have become too busy, because I now forget everything unless it pops up in a calendar reminder.

    I put all my meetings, etc. in a calendar. The reminders pop up on my computers whenever I check my email, and on my phone.

    For tasks, I have a Master To Do List that I keep in my inbox. I only have to open the email to see what I still need to do. It is a ridiculously long list, so I end up updating it and making a weekly to do list from it on Friday afternoons. Seeing the whole list reminds me of a) how much I actually get done and b) how important it is to get this week’s tasks done and how they fit into the bigger picture.

    Every day I look at my list and pick the most important thing to do.

    I also use my email inbox as a reminder of what I still have left to do. Sometimes someone requests something and I need to be reminded of a task to be done in the future (e.g. “let X know confirmed details about Y event in November 2016). For that, I use outlook’s flag reminder feature. The email disappears and then pops up in my inbox again when I need to start thinking about getting that task done.

    Many of my tasks are actually someone else’s task (bosses) that I have to make sure gets done. In that case, I remind them. And then wait some more, until it gets done. The email request sits there until they get it done and don’t have to worry about it anymore.

    Sometimes my inbox has 50 things in it, but I never feel overwhelmed by them–they each will get done when I have done my prioritised work, and I generally keep things rotating through and organised at any given time. If it isn’t important, it won’t get done, and that means it really didn’t matter much in the first place!

  • Kathryn @ Making Your Money Matter

    I really appreciate the suggestions about email list organizing. I’m really on top of paper mail, but my email box gets cluttered so fast! I realized that I should treat my email like my physical mailbox-only check it once or twice a day when I have 15 minutes to actually take care of the items then and there, put them on my to-do list or archive. I literally just changed my iPhone settings not to push new emails automatically at all. This is going to be a great week of being less distracted-just what I need at this time! Thanks!

  • K

    I don’t organize my life – or it is a work in progress.

    How do you organize Projects? and recurring tasks?

    Do you set goals?

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