Effective inbox management

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Pro Tips

Here are a few ideas for even more effective inbox management.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

24 Comments for “Effective inbox management”

  1. posted by Haim From IQTELL on

    David, I liked your post.

    Effective Inbox management is determined by how fast you can get an item out of there. On our app IQTELL we developed a workflow that connects all your incoming emails to tasks, projects, calendars, Evernote and so much more.

    Where can I contact you in private? We want to invite you to our app 🙂

  2. posted by Susan on

    Just like anything else in life, you’ve got to make the time for it! Helpful information. Thanks!

  3. posted by Jane on

    Whew, such a relief to hear that I’m not the only person who despite having electronic gadgets (iPhone, iPad, etc) still finds it super necessary to use a pen & paper.

    I found out the hard way only after I completely converted ALL my old paper recipes to digital (using the Paprika Recipe Manager) that I can’t utilize that method to meal plan worth a darn. I used to wade through the paper recipes & lay them out on the table & re-arange them until I found a weeks worth of meals then clip those recipes to the fridge in order of usage.

    Using the electronic recipe manager does not allow me to see multiple recipes at once laid out before me so I end up giving up & ordering out or having a hodge-podge of dinners that don’t utilize leftovers as well.

    Did I also mention that I recycled all those old paper recipes when I moved everything to digital?

    Yeah well I’ll be the first to admit that that was not one of my brightest idea’s.

    Now I gotta figure out the best way to convert those digital recipes back to paper.

    I swear I make my own trouble.

  4. posted by David Caolo on

    Haim: the best way is the contact form on my own site: http://52tiger.net/contact/

  5. posted by chacha1 on

    One other thing. I have multiple e-mail addresses, as do many others I am sure. I have all of my personal addresses set to forward to a primary address. That way there is only one in-box I need to check … but I can still use the other addresses for originating correspondence and sending responses.

    Some email providers have much better security than others; that’s why I do this. Also, the different addresses correspond to different “identities” in the sense of the type of business I conduct with them. To me, it helps keep things segregated.

  6. posted by David Caolo on

    Chacha1: good point!

  7. posted by Me on

    Do you know what is “light, durable, small and can write in any position”, plus cost much less than 20$, can be erased and it’s available everywhere? A pencil.

  8. posted by Damian on

    Love the definition of “stuff!” I’m with you on the notebook idea. I’ve kept a pocket notebook with me for a while now and wouldn’t know what to do without it these days.

  9. posted by Scott Kotarides on

    Me I am more of an evernote guy for managing my notes and organizing things. I used to like pencil and paper but you can’t take it, or search to easily find things. You also can’t easily share things in your notebook. That being said everyone needs a system that works for them. Totally with you for organizing though. Great idea.

  10. posted by Sharon on

    Another fan of paper and pen! I find it so much easier reach for a pad and pen to jot down a note. I am a stay at home mother so I don’t always have my computer on and it takes less time to scribble on paper than to type a note on my phone, especially when dealing with two toddlers who get their hands on everything. But even when I was working full time and sitting in front of a computer all day I still found myself writing notes on post-its. And like you, I would go through all of my notes at the end of the day.

  11. posted by Janet on

    Thank you for this terrific post!

    I predict the next hottest thing will be just what you describe – paper and pen or pencil.
    (Ask the people who are digging out from Hurricane Sandy how well their iCals are functioning at the moment.)

  12. posted by Brian on

    About that pencil comment… try writing with a pencil on paper in the rain. I had a job where I had to do that, and the space pen worked.

  13. posted by Brian on

    Also, try carrying a sharp pencil in your front pocket. 🙂

  14. posted by Erika In VA on

    Loved the post, but could you explain what you normally write on the 3×5 cards? My typical physical in-box item is paper,so I’m having a hard time imagining how I might use 3×5 cards to help process ‘stuff.’ Thanks! =)

  15. posted by ninakk on

    I use Runbox. One login, one primary email and five aliases as part of the smallest package. I’ve made inbox folders for each alias and this allows me to prioritize automatically between “cr*p” email, private and business ones. My aim is to empty the inboxes daily and have some kind of action connected to eqch email at the end of the day.

    I keep Inbox folders on the computer too. They are primary miscellaneous buckets to keep contexts separate, again to allow a first level of prioritizing. What gets archived is sorted in Leap for Mac and tickler files are tagged the same way.

    Finally, I keep Inbox file folders of same categories to catch the stuff, since I don’t sort papers daily. There isn’t so much of it that it can’t wait for a concentrated sorting session about once weekly. Should I need something quickly, it is convenient to look in just one file folder though.

    Projects and Archives follow the same structure in all places; paper, computer, email. Ticklers are as paper and on computer.

  16. posted by CM on

    Love the idea of tossing cards into an inbox and then checking it once in a while! That way you can quickly capture information in a way that’s hard to lose (until you remove the cards, but you could just never remove a card until the action was complete).

  17. posted by squibby on

    This is all very useful but it pre-supposes that someone is allowed to delete their professional emails. If your employer requires that all business emails in and out be kept for 7 years, then inbox management can be painful .

  18. posted by Dave on

    Me: good point. But when a pencil tip breaks and I’m nowhere near a sharpener, I’m out of luck. And shop around — you can definitely find Fisher pens on sale.

  19. posted by Dave on

    Erika In VA — Great question. Expect an answer in post from me soon. 🙂

  20. posted by Dave on

    squibby – Absolutely true. I understand that many people are unable to delete emails for various reasons. In that case, I suggest creating an archive folder that keeps those “cold storage” messages aware from active conversations.

  21. posted by Dave on

    “aware” = “away.” Someday I’ll post a comment without a type-o. What a great day that will bee.

  22. posted by cathleen on

    Hey Jane, I use the Mealfire app (free, iPhone, iPad) and love it!


  23. posted by ratwoman on

    I love “Kontact” so much – a notebook, a calendar, an eMail Client, an adressbook all hooked together – you can switch different calendars and aliases on and off, you have a progress bar for tasks and a deadline, a reminder for tasks to be done and meetings that block you and it works via network or cloud – accessable everywhere.
    When I have a task I can add a contact to it and write an eMail right out of the task, when needed. It has a blocking funktion, so that you do not promise to bake a cake for a birthday when you have a deadline for a projekt. It shows all information switched on in one small and simple window.
    I use it for everything – created different personal calendars and business calendars (wich I can share with coworkers) and just turn on and off what I need.

    When I am not at the computer, make a quick note in my cellphone with a reminder for the next workingday (if I had a smartphone I could access it mobile)- then I write it down in Kontact – I do not want to carry pen and paper and a calendar around all the time and all those tiny notes get lost too easy – toss a postcard in an full inbox – I will not find it when I search for it and forget about it.

    I like programms doing the remembering and sorting work for me – but welll…. I’m a geek 😀

    Aaand it’s freeware and open source!

  24. posted by Cheryl on

    Hi Dave,

    When you write the post in response to Erika’s question, could you include a description of what, exactly, you do when you process? I often find the task of sorting through my inbox to be exhausting because each item requires some type of decision-making. I feel like low energy times are the wrong times for me to deal with processing. This could be a difference in personality, or, and this is what I’m hoping, a difference in what processing entails to you. I want to make it more appealing for myself so that I’ll be more likely to stick to it as a regular habit.

    Thanks for this post!

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