We’ve all had an email that we left in the inbox to serve as a reminder for something. Perhaps we even marked it as unread, thinking that would bring more attention to it. Maybe it’s a task we still need to do, maybe we can’t deal with it until next week, or maybe we’re worried the other person won’t get back to us in time and we’ll have to nudge them again. Regardless of the reason, we leave the email in the inbox as a reminder so we won’t forget.
The problem is, this is the exact opposite of how reminders are supposed to work. The brain is triggered by novelty (things that are new or different), and the brain adapts to repetition (things it sees all the time). The longer an email stays in your inbox, the more often you’ll choose to ignore it, the more it will become part of the scenery.
In contrast, a good reminder shows up when and where it is most useful. If an email can’t be dealt with until next Monday, that’s when you want it to appear in your inbox again. If it’s related to something you have to do at work tomorrow, that’s where you should see it. If you want to get those reminder emails out of your inbox, you’ll need to find a better system to remind of you things. Here are some of my favorite systems:
1. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook
Boomerang is a free program (as a Chrome Extension for Gmail or in the Microsoft AppStore for Outlook) with two main features: 1) It gives you a Send Later button, allowing you to write emails now that won’t be sent until a specific time in the future, and 2) It has a boomerang function that will remove an email from your inbox but send it back to you under certain circumstances, such as “send this back to me if they don’t respond in two days”.
2. Calendars Reminders
In addition to adding date-specific reminders to your calendar like any other event, most calendar programs have the ability to set reminders for existing events. For example in my early days of employee reviews, I would set my Google calendar to email me 10 days before an employee’s anniversary so I could set up their annual review.
3. Task Management Apps
Any task manager worth using will include reminders as part of the system. My favorite is Asana. I can create a task, set a date for it, and throw it on the very bottom of my “Later” list, hidden from sight. A week before the due date Asana will automatically bring it into my “Upcoming” section, and on the due date it will show up in “Today.” This means I can throw any long-term tasks into Asana and forget about them, confident that I’ll be reminded when it’s time to do them.
4. Waiting Folder/Label
In my previous accounting job I often ended up with small issues that needed to be reconciled but were temporarily on someone else’s plate. For these things, I had a Waiting folder. Items that were currently someone else’s responsibility went in the Waiting folder, and I went through the folder every Friday to see who I needed to nudge. The key to making a Waiting Folder work is scheduling a regular time to look through it, otherwise items may get forgotten permanently.
5. Siri / Okay Google / Cortana
The majority of modern phones and computers have some kind of built-in digital assistant, and this feature can be great for capturing thoughts for later. I use Siri on my iPhone, and I’ll often tell her things like, “Remind me to email Brian when I get home” or “Remind me about tote bags tonight at 7PM”.
You may find yourself needing to use several different systems to account for all the different types of reminders you need in your life. I’m currently using four of the five I listed above. I would recommend starting with the system that feels most intuitive, and exploring the other options as needed.
We leave emails in our inbox to nag us, to keep being a bother until we finally do something about them. But if we can’t take action on it right now, that nagging is just another form of distraction.
- Choose the reminder system(s) that seems most appropriate to your life and your emails
- Identify 1-3 emails you’ve left in you inbox as reminders
- Ask yourself “When and where will I need to see this next?” and replace each email with a reminder
- Check back in a week to see if more reminder emails have appeared, and if your current system(s) can accommodate them