Avoiding Inbox Overload

A conventional aim of productivity is to get you out of the habit of spending time in your email inbox. I’ve always been a fan of this philosophy. It went a long way toward getting me to take a more active and intentional approach to my work. Rather than living my life deciding what to do, I spend more of it doing what I’ve decided.

Lately my concern is moving away from the time spent in any one inbox and toward the overall number of inboxes we allow into our lives.

We tend to take the concept of an inbox literally. We have our email accounts and likely a physical space or two in our homes and at our jobs. But this only scratches the surface of our inboxes which, in my mind, have grown to include anywhere we need to visit regularly to consider or act on potential tasks. Using this definition, you can start to see how our inboxes are growing exponentially.

Each social network is an inbox, especially those with an actual inbox like Facebook. Our text and instant messages are an inbox. Our RSS reader is an inbox. Instapaper is an inbox. Our e-reader of choice is, you guessed it, an inbox. Our task managers even have an inbox. Even apps like Marco Arment’s The Magazine are effectively inboxes.

We’re even starting to see apps like Cloze that even aim to collect our inboxes. This is certainly a solution, but I think there just might be a better one…

Have Less Inboxes

We’ve grown cavalier about what we sign up for, this is especially true in the age of free and affordable services and applications. We’re so excited by new technologies and great sources of content that we take on far too many. We obsess about the message count in our email inbox, but we ignore the fact that our actual inbox count grows daily. This has to stop. When we get ready to pull the trigger on a new service or a new publication we have to recognize that we either have to check it regularly or feel guilty for not. We have to be mindful that we are often allowing yet another inbox into our lives.

Make Action Boxes

Much as Instapaper can be an inbox, if used correctly it can be a place of action. By being selective about what goes in, you can keep things to a minimum. It becomes less a place to consider and more what it’s meant to be: a better place to read. The same is true for your task list. I almost never use the inbox in OmniFocus. When creating tasks, I assign a project (even if it’s just adding it to a single action list), a context and usually a start date. This takes a little bit longer, but eliminates the need to have to check yet another inbox.

As you start to take a realistic look at the number of inboxes that you’ve allowed in your life, see which ones you can eliminate. When looking at what’s left, think of what you can do to turn an inbox to an action box. By separating the places where you consider doing work from the places you do it, you avoid distraction and find yourself better situated to get more done.

Inbox Zero or Zero Inboxes

Okay, no inboxes is an unrealistic idea. But a big misconception of Inbox Zero (or at least a big misconception of those who love to use the hashtag #inboxzero) has always been that emphasis of having no emails vs. spending way less time on email. The goal of inbox zero has always been to spend more of your time doing meaningful work and same should hold true for the actual number if inboxes we allow into our lives. Get rid of what you can, make better use of what remains, but don’t obsess. Spend less time dealing with all of your various inboxes and you’ll find you have far more time for the things that really matter most.

Have you become careless with your inboxes? If so, what do you plan to do about it?

3 Responses to Avoiding Inbox Overload

  1. I’m super good at managing work flow into my inbox. I’m also really good at focusing during the day and spending time on email only three times a day. But the sheer number of emails I receive every day from clients, employees, prospects, candidates, partners, and vendors is what kills me. For instance, I do all of my client and direct report meetings on Mondays. That means, I’m in meetings from 8:30 until 6:30 or 7:00 every week. I am STILL trying to get through all of the emails that need me to do something from this past Monday…two days ago. If you have some magic tool for that, let me at it!

  2. When I first mapped my capture workflow ( http://bit.ly/12pTzod ) I was mildly surprised to see on paper how many inboxes I was managing.

    I think the key is to have a clear, delineated purpose for each one (such as Pocket for articles, Gmail for emails, evernote for document tasks) and to strive always for opportunities to streamline.

    I like your idea of ‘action boxes’ but I do think there’s still a place for dumping a newly-captured item without needing to flesh out the relevant detail there and then. The trick is to have daily review habits to ensure those inboxes can be easily managed to zero each day so they don’t get too unwieldy.

    • I still do this, I just usually use a single actions list with a context in OF (as I only use two contexts) rather than the inbox. This way I can knock things out, but also properly refile during the weekly reviews.

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