Minimizing and handling multiple inboxes
In daily work life, very few things can create more anxiety than the worry of forgetting something. It seems close to Getting Things Done (GTD), but it is true for any workflow. When one is busy with not trying to forget things, the brain cannot do other tasks. At least not as well.
Of course, there are lots of situations, where people can forget things. But a constant worry is, things slipping through. There is the email inbox, a calendar application, a To-Do application, the team Slack, the customer ticket system, maybe a couple of sticky notes, and so on.
The sheer amount of systems to administer can be overwhelming. In the end, it is not about administrating productivity apps; it is about finishing work, right? There are, however, a couple of things, one can do, to ease one’s mind.
What are Inboxes for?
This heading seems like an easy question. But first, let’s go cover some detail on what inboxes actually are, and what they are for. Many apps have inboxes. The most prominent one is probably an email account: The inbox is the folder where all new emails arrive.
Another example is the inbox of a task management suite, or the root folder in a note taking application. The same thing even exists in the analog world: Let’s say, you have a main notebook where you write down all your ideas during the day.
The idea of an Inbox is simple:
- Inboxes allow for brain dumps.
- Inboxes allow for sorting and filtering ideas on a second pass-through.
- Inboxes are the connection to the outside world.
The third point is, in particular, true for emails. Everything coming from the outside is dumped into a single folder and needs to be handled, somehow. But the meaning of that point is broader: Everything in your notes, in your productivity tools, in the structure of your projects should and will enter through one inbox or another. When capturing ideas, they will pass the inbox.
This leads to an issue: The Inbox gets noisy. There are lots of sources, lots of entries. It gets fuller and fuller, and at some point all hope is lost, as nobody will find anything useful anymore. By scrolling through the list of entries, or by flipping through the notebook.
The approach “Inbox Zero” is often brought up in context of e-mails. The main idea is to have zero emails in an inbox at the end of each workday.
There are various approaches to this. Of course, spam emails and newsletters can be deleted or archived directly. This makes space for more important emails.
Next, there should only be emails, which require attention. This could be an email to reply to, some attachment important to look into, or similar things, which require an arbitrarily large amount of time.
Of course, everything which can be finished in one session can be tackled and then archived. The rule is to archive everything which requires no future attention. After replying to something and needing to wait for a reply: time for the archive. Then, it will not be on one’s mind every time looking into the inbox.
Often, it is important to make sure, that there will be a reply, and an email is not forgotten on the other end. In this case, maybe an entry in the to-do app with a start date next week can handle this?
There might be other emails which cannot be replied to right now or need extra attention on another day. There are a couple of options:
For example, forwarding emails related to a certain task to a To-Do or GTD app. Various applications allow for tasks to be added via email. Depending on the app of choice, this might even include the email content as a note or attachment to the task. Afterwards, the email can be archived and removed from the inbox.
Applications like Spark or SaneBox allow snoozing of emails. This allows for an email to be delayed to a future date. During this time, it will be removed from the Inbox. This can be helpful for tasks, which for various reasons cannot be worked on right now.
In the end, all emails are handled. Spam emails and newsletters are deleted. Tasks are entered into a task manager for a later reference. Questions by colleagues are answered. Everything can be archived, and the inbox gets empty. Nothing can get messy, everything stays sorted. This is the ideal state.
Of course, this is a rule of thumb. Things should not be enforced. Do not be too strict about this. In the end, the methodology is about reducing the amount of noise. Things, which are already handled should not be in inboxes anymore. If the workday ends, and there are still three relevant emails in an inbox, they can still stay for tomorrow. There is no need to have zero emails – first and foremost, it is about noise reduction.
Inbox Zero for other things
Everything written above is related to emails. But Inbox Zero can be interesting for other fields, too. Most task managing apps, especially ones which work similar than GTD, have an Inbox.
In this case, it is not about archiving and finishing tasks but organizing them. To empty the inbox, assign all tasks to a relevant project, and tag it with start dates and deadlines.
This way, one can be sure to not forget things when they are important. A deadline in three weeks does not need to pop up in the inbox every day – maybe it is enough to be reminded of it the Monday morning before the deadline.
The Inbox can also give a psychological assistance in organizing tasks. In the Inbox, there are tasks which are waiting to be organized. It gives an opportunity for filtering out things which seem unimportant on second thought, thinking about schedules and deadlines, and setting priorities.
A second thing which might be worth considering, is the reduction of inboxes. As in, removing a number of inboxes.
As written above, there are plenty of apps, which one looks into every single day: the task manager, the calendar, of course, email. Then, there are other locations like sticky notes, open issues in GitLab, customer tickets, and so on.
These various locations of information create another source of noise. One might forget to look into certain apps and forget an important deadline or interesting idea. It might be overwhelming to sort through information which is scattered over various locations.
Of course, one could stop using apps entirely and thus remove these sources – but this is often not really an option. Instead, one can bundle multiple apps.
Information should be centralized to be able to organize and sort through. Even if the source of tasks and information is very mixed, one can link to other apps and still keep a note of it in a central place.
Task managers and GTD apps often allow creating tasks by email forwarding. One can create tasks by simply forwarding an email to a specific address related to the service of choice. Email sounds very narrow, but almost every app allows sharing to email.
This idea can even be automatized. Using services like IFTTT, or simple e-mail rules, one can simply forward certain things to a task management inbox.
For example, forwarding all emails from the supervisor directed directly to oneself to the task app. After setting up such a rule, nothing can slip through. Similar, it is possible to forward assigned tasks in GitLab or Trello to the personal task managing app of choice. Now, other apps will file tasks in the to-do list app by themselves.
One can be creative: There are services for RSS to Email, which allows for creating tasks for new posts on interesting blogs. Services like Evernote and OneNote also have integration to IFTTT, so it is also possible to create new tasks for all newly created notes.
The main idea is to remove the places to look into. Whenever one thinks “which things do I still need to consider today.” There are probably dozens of places to look into. Try creating a centralized point where all various work tools dump their information. This way, one can be sure that there is nothing forgotten, no app “I forgot to open today.”
Another thing crucial for a good structure is maintenance. It should be made a habit to regularly browse through your applications. If Inbox Zero is follow religiously, the Inbox is already empty. This is good and the ideal result; but probably not the case.
Everybody gets lazy with workflows and more often than not, the email inbox might fill up to hundreds of emails, the task management inbox looks like no work done for weeks, or the notebook looks like somebody crazy had a million of random thoughts.
Dedicate some regular time to maintenance – maybe at night or weekend, where everything gets cleaned up. After a fresh start, things are much easier to work with. It will be a boost in productivity, without changing any systems.
There are various approaches to minimize inboxes. The Inbox Zero approach is a way to avoid any kind of inboxes to get messy. The idea is to try handling all available emails by the end of the day. This makes the inbox empty. Nothing to forget, nothing to hide inside mess.
To reduce the number of places to check every day, multiple inboxes can be bundled. This way, information inflow gets centralized. Emailing future tasks to a to-do list app can be an option. This can also be automatized with IFTTT or email rules. Even note apps like Evernote, OneNote, and others allow integration into such systems. Forgetting an interesting web clip might be a thing of the past!
Combining all these small techniques, one can reduce stress and noise. With an organized inbox, it will reduce the probability for things to slip through. This will allow for the brain to be free for important thoughts – the work itself.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you make a purchase.
Dr. Marc A. Kastner
I am an assistant professor working on computer vision and multimodal understanding. I am interested in task- and knowledge management. In my free time, I blog on productivity workflows and apps.
For my professional portfolio, please visit: marc-kastner.com
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