Inboxes of all kinds can easily grow out of control without much effort. Recently, I admitted to myself I had entirely too many, and processing each one had become a time-consuming hassle. I’d forget to look in one or the other and miss something important. Now, I’ve pared them down to a few essential inboxes. Here’s what I’m using for inboxes, as well as a few tips on effective inbox management and decisions to consider when setting up inboxes of your own.
What’s an “inbox?”
An inbox is a productivity middle man that sit between your receipt of stuff — email, phone calls, crumpled papers at the bottom of a school backpack — and your neatly organized to-do list. It’s anything you might use to capture all your stuff that needs to be processed.
I define stuff per David Allen’s definition: stuff is anything that isn’t where it should be. Tickets for the play you intend to see over the weekend, the water bill, a permission slip from your child’s school. All of this stuff must be processed (figure out what it is and what must be done, if anything).
Inboxes I use
- Notebook and pen. I’ve got a notebook and a pen with me at all times. It’s my favorite way to capture ideas that pop into my head (“I must remember to schedule an oil change for the van”) as well as things that come up in conversations. I love my notebook for several reasons. First, it never goes down or has a dead battery. It never crashes or loses data. My notebook never needs an update and every pen I own is compatible with it. Water won’t kill it (I fished one out of the Delaware river that I’m still using). Plus, they’re cheap and easy to recycle.
I use a Fisher Space Pen because it’s light, durable, small and can write in any position, for those times you have to prop your paper up against a wall to get a flat surface. Ordinary pens would succumb to gravity and stop working in this situation. Not the Fisher.
As for notebooks, anything small enough to fit in your pocket will do. I’m partial to Field Notes Brand because they’re durable and fairly inexpensive.
- Email inboxes. I’ve written about email before, so I won’t go into great detail in this post. But, I will say this: don’t go silly with rules, folders, colors, tagging and so on. I have two folders (Review and VIP) and a few rules — most of which kill spam. The goal is efficiency. Create just what you need to process your email stuff effectively, and nothing else.
- Physical inbox. Visit any office supply store in your town and pick up a tray or two. I have a cheap-o faux leather box from Staples. I use it most often with index cards.
I keep a stack of plain, 3×5 index cards on my desk. When some stuff shows up, I write it down on an index card, throw it into the inbox and resume what I was doing. The interruption is minimal and my brain trusts that I’ll give the info on that card the attention it deserves later in the day, so I can continue to focus on the task at hand.
Here are a few ideas for even more effective inbox management.
- Don’t share an inbox with your spouse … or your housemate, roommate, or whomever you live with if you live with someone. My wife and I made this change a few years ago and it’s benefited our productivity and our marriage. We have our own conflicting ways of dealing with stuff, and the differences led to tension. Plus, my stuff no longer gets lost among hers and vice-versa.
- Designate a time to process your inboxes. I like to do this at the end of the day. I know that my energy level will be low, and the act of flipping through index cards, email messages and notebook scribblings isn’t very taxing. I’m not completing tasks at this point, just reviewing the day’s crop of stuff and deciding what must be done about it.
- Buy tools you enjoy using. If you have a new toy, you’re likely to play with it. Honestly, I use Field Notes Brand notebooks because I like the look of them. They’re cute and harken back to the old-time agricultural notebooks that farmers used to keep tabs on their crops, livestock, etc. I like that about them, and therefore, I want to use them. Find an inbox tray you like. Identify a favorite pen. Heck, I even occasionally splurge on fancy-pants index cards when I’m feeling flush.
- Ditch the guilt! No one gets clean and clear every day. It’s perfectly okay to go to bed before you’ve placed every little item into a project or list, just try not to make it an every day habit.
A Few Decisions To Make
There are a few things to consider when creating inboxes. First, will you separate professional vs. personal stuff? I’m more than happy to let a note from my kid’s school mingle with to-do’s for work. If that bothers you, consider a way to keep them separate.
It’s also important to consider if you should go electronic. Apps, computers, and mobile devices are appealing and fun, but not always the best solution if you don’t consistently use them. Often a low-tech solution like pen and paper is just the ticket. Also, getting stuff off an electronic inbox can sometimes be a hassle.
I hope this helps. Remember to use as few inboxes as you can, but as many as you need. You’ll process more quickly and miss less.