If vs. Which

I received the following comment on ADN from Tully Hansen regarding my post on Inboxes:

Thinking about this very topic yesterday, I’m not sure there’s not an important distinction between the boxes you control completely and those that fill up without any intervention on your part.

It’s a fair callout and for many, it may hold true. If you don’t struggle to get things done, there may be no need to distinguish between the places where you consider and do your work. For me, it’s an important distinction, here’s why…

The Inbox

Whenever you’re dealing with an inbox, I have to ask if this is something I should do. Not should I do this right now, but should I do it at all? It’s a place where anyone can put work for consideration. My email inbox is often filled with things I have no intention or desire to do. The pile in the corner of my desk is a place for people to put things that they’d like me to look over. My RSS reader is full of things that I don’t want to read. My mailbox is a place where I’m never short of amazed by who seems to have somehow gotten ahold of my address. 

An inbox always forces you to question if you should do something. It’s a place to consider and eliminate your work.

The Action Box

When I go into an action box, there’s no if about it. This was something I wanted to read or want to do. The only question I need to ask is which should go first. Yes, sometimes priorities (or even interests) change and something drops off the list, but that’s what a weekly review is for. When I go into OmniFocus, there are only tasks that I need/want to do, when I open Instapaper there are only things I want to read. When I process the pile of papers on my end table at home, there’s only mail that requires a response.

An action box lets you focus on which you should do first. It’s a place to organize and complete your work. 

Inbox vs. Action Box

This distinction between “if” I should do something and “which” thing I should do is the reason I take the time to move anything that takes longer than a few minutes from an inbox to an action box. Trying to handle both at the same time is often too much for my meager mind. It lets me ask the right questions in the right places. It lets me focus on my intentions in an inbox and my priorities in an action box. It creates sacred places for putting the things that matter most, places that only I control and only I can screw up.

As the number of inboxes and the volume of crap in each inbox continues to increase, it has become difficult for me to do any kind of meaningful work there. This is the reason why I embraced the idea of creating a distinction between the two. This may do nothing for you, it may add an additional layer of work, but if if you find that there’s a conflict between your intentions and your priorities, you may find separating one from the other to be a useful tactic.

What do you think? Is there a benefit to this kind of a distinction or is it just moving work around rather than getting work done?