Sorting Your Inbox Into Priority Files: Why It Doesn’t Work

MA, a new ETR reader, responded to my advice re organizing daily tasks according to Steve Covey’s four-quadrant principle. (The idea, in a nutshell, is that you should organize your life so that you give priority to Important but Not Urgent goals since they will make the biggest difference in what you accomplish.)

MA offers “another way to solve the in box (both paper and e-mail) challenge”:

1. Categorize everything as it comes in. “With both paper in the tray and e-mail in the in box, I immediately decide what priority to give it.” Comment: Agreed. Part of the 15 minutes I spend each day “planning” my schedule includes this sorting and categorizing process. You can’t possibly plan your tasks well if you don’t know what’s waiting for you.

2. Give top priority to anything that has to be done immediately. Comment: I’m suspicious of this. Although MA insists that he determines “urgencies” according to his priorities, I wonder if he’s not subordinating his schedule to someone else’s. If you follow the ETR program, you should almost never have such urgency (car crashes aside). You’ve got to train your co-workers — and your bosses too — to respect your schedule. If you do so politely over time, they will. That said, when such very occasional emergencies arise, you must take care of them. But you don’t want to leave them in a pile. You want to put them on your task list and give them priority by highlighting them.

3. MA then divides the rest of the mail into four more categories of priority according to whether it has to be handled by the end of the day, end of the week, “back-burner” stuff, and “to read” material. Comment: I’ve tried this system, and it has a major flaw. Unless you account for, beforehand, how long each task will take to complete, you’ll have no idea how many tasks you can get done that day. What will almost certainly happen is that you’ll end up with a never-complete pile of paper, growing larger every day, with the weekly urgencies being prolonged and the Important but Not Urgent stuff never getting done.

The end result: Someone else will be in charge of your life and you’ll never get your major Life Goals accomplished. The secret to effective planning and prioritizing is to have a daily schedule that is limited to a number of tasks that you can realistically accomplish that day. The priority-pile system gives you the feeling that you are in control, but ultimately fails because it allows you to put tasks in your “to-do” pile that you have no realistic chance of accomplishing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in favor of assigning priorities. But they should not be time-designated. Each day should include time allocations for all your important goals and those that are “Not Urgent” should be given priority. This is a very difficult thing to do. Most people won’t do it because it forces them, first thing in the morning, to recognize the fact that there are certain urgencies that they simply won’t handle. But unless you recognize that reality, you’ll be forever working for your in box and will never be truly in charge of your own life.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]