Inboxes: Where Workflow Begins
When I developed my first-ever presentation on productivity for school administrators, I gave it the subtitle “Managing the Four Inboxes.” These inboxes, as a enumerated them at the time, were
- Paper mail
- Mobile (always-with-you)
Your list may vary from mine and may change over time; since I gave this presentation in 2007, my voicemail has been integrated with my email inbox, so they’re no longer separate, and my mobile inbox has moved from paper to iPhone.
But the basic idea of inboxes and workflow hasn’t changed much for me. Here’s a quick primer.
Inboxes have an essential and straightforward role in your organization system: When something “comes in” – in other words, lands on your desk, pops into your head, arrives in your email inbox, or otherwise enters your world – the first place it should go is the appropriate inbox. This should happen automatically, so you’re not constantly burdened with making decisions about where to set things. (See David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero approach for more.)
The inbox is not a place of great organization; it’s a temporary holding tank for what would otherwise be work-sprawl. Organization happens later (as needed).
The goal is to get all of your inboxes empty as often as possible, so no surprises are lurking beneath the surface for very long. This state has become popularly known as “inbox zero” (a reference to the unread-message count in an email application).
To get an inbox empty, you have to process – decide the fate of – each item in it. If the item is quickly dealt with – i.e. if you can be done with it forever in two minutes or less – Allen suggests simply doing it on the spot, rather than “organizing” it into some more complicated system of reminders and advanced planning. Just do it.
If it will take more than two minutes, you need what Allen calls a “trusted system” to hold a reminder for yourself. There are several places an item could go after I process one of my inboxes:
- The trash/recycling (item not needed at all)
- The file cabinet/Evernote database (no action needed; might want to keep for documentation purposes)
- The to-do list – in my case, OmniFocus (action needed)
- The calendar (specific appointment/meeting to attend)
- The tickler file (need to look at this again later, but not right now)
That’s it – when my inbox is empty, every item will either be done forever (e.g. forms I’ve signed and returned to my school secretary) or in one of the above places.
One of the keys to staying organized and not stressed is regularly emptying the inboxes. Of course, processing inboxes takes time, and the more inboxes you have, the less frequently you’ll be able to empty them all.
Therefore, one way to improve your workflow, stay on top of things, and prevent overwhelm is to limit the number of inboxes in your world.
When in doubt, email something to yourself – you know you’ll check your email, and you can avoid creating yet another inbox to check. For example, I take teacher observation and walkthrough notes in Evernote. If I have something I want to send to a teacher, I don’t leave it in Evernote and hope I remember to check it later, nor do I treat Evernote as another inbox.
Instead, I simply email the note to myself. Then, next time I’m processing my email inbox, I see the observation notes and can forward them to the teacher.
What are your inboxes? Do you have any tips for keeping them under control?