Inputs and inboxes

Consider how you deal with e-mail. All your e-mail arrives, automatically, unbidden, unwanted, unloved, in one or more inboxes. You might have one inbox for work, and another for personal use. Further, you might have automatic filters that move some incoming e-mail into other folders: software developers are often on many discussion mailing lists, each of which goes into its own folder. Each such folder would be a separate inbox.

A common anti-pattern for people is to keep e-mail in their inboxes. They read it, and leave it there. The next time they read e-mail, there might be some new mail, which they read, and leave there. Eventually, the mail piles up a lot, and it gets hard to find a specific mail you may need. Even more importantly, it gets hard to know which mails still require you to do something. Perhaps there was a mail from your boss you need to re-read? Or a mail from your mother that you need to reply to? Or perhaps you replied to her already? Can’t remember if you did?

Treating an e-mail folder both as an inbox and an archive of old mail, and mixing it further up as a list of things to do, leads to confusion, angst, and stress.

Let’s make a small change to e-mail handling. Let’s keep only unprocessed e-mail in the inboxes, and do one of the following things for every e-mail in each inbox, after reading it:

  • delete it, if it is unlikely to be of further use; for example, spam, or stupid jokes from friends
  • reply to it immediately, if you can, and it will only take a minute or two; for example, your mother asks if you’ll be visiting next weekend, and you’ve already made plans with your partner to go on holiday, so you can reply at once saying sorry, not this weekend
  • move it to a “needs replying” folder, if the mail requires a reply, but you don’t have time to do that right now
  • forward it to someone else, perhaps with a cover letter, if it’s their job, not yours, to deal with it; for example, it might be a question only your boss can answer
  • move it to an archival folder, if you think you might need it later on

(Compare the above list with “do, defer, delegate, delete, or file” from the Quickie overview chapter.)

When you have time, you look into the “needs replying” folder, and reply to one or more mails in there. After you’ve replied, you delete or archive the original mail.

With this change, you have a better handle on your e-mail. You know that anything in the inbox is unknown and needs to be processed, and anything in the “needs replying” folder needs some action, and that anything you might need later is in the archival folder. No other mails require any action, and any mails that do require action are easy to find.

This will make you be much more relaxed about your e-mail. You never need to worry whether you’ve replied to everything that needs replying. A further benefit is that you’re likely to reply to mail much faster than before.

Work versus personal inboxes

It can be quite stressful to have to deal with work while you’re supposedly in your free time. Configuring your e-mail so that your work mails are not visible on your own computer, or not visible unless you’re actually working, is quite a good idea. Keeping the work and personal inboxes separate is a first step.

If your work e-mail is not in your face all the time, it’s easier to ignore it, and that makes it easier to relax.

Other kinds of inputs

The same processing principles work for all kinds of input, not just e-mail. You should collect, whenever possible, all inputs in your life into inboxes, which you regularly process until they’re empty. For each inbox item you decide whether to discard it, do the required action immediately, do it later, delegate it to someone else, or whether the item just needs to be filed.

Hackers tend to mostly deal with digital inputs, but there’s always some physical ones as well. If nothing else, TPS reports and voicemails about their cover sheets. If you have more than a couple of inboxes, you may need to keep a checklist of them. For physical inboxes, it is often easiest to have as few as possible, but experiment with what works for you.

Your phone may also be an inbox. For example, text messages, voicemail, notes you write on the phone, photos and videos you take, etc., are all inbox fodder.

When an input can’t easily be put into an inbox, put a proxy there instead.

Inbox processing

Some inboxes you should empty frequently, several times a day. Some can be done more rarely. For example, I usually process my physical inbox once or twice a week, since any items that go into it tend not to be urgent.

When you’ve processed an item from the inbox, you need to remove it from the inbox. This means you need to have a place to put it, even if it is only the trash. We will cover filing systems and other related tools later.

Bug trackers: not really inboxes

Hackers tend to deal with bug trackers, ticketing systems, and similar systems. These are not purely inboxes. They’re also sort of project lists, and next actions lists. I have found it most efficient to use them as places to trawl for inbox material. It’s not possible to remove items from bug trackers just because you’ve decided what to do with them. Instead, I review the list of open bugs, and see if there’s anything there that’s new or that I need to deal with. If there is, I add a proxy into my own inbox (or, sometimes, directly as a next action). I might have a project in my GTD system for a particular bug.

It’s often the case that the total number of open bugs is so large it’s overwhelming. I have found only one way to deal with that: keep dealing with subsets of the bugs that are most important, and try to handle bugs at least as fast as they’re reported. The rest of the bugs may have to languish for a while, but if there’s more of them than you have time for, that’s unavoidable.

Inboxes a la Lars

Here are the inboxes I use:

  • physical inbox: letters and other mail, notes written on paper, etc.
  • wallet: receipts, other bits and pieces that get collected during the day
  • notebooks: notes made while out and about and phone/laptop wasn’t available
  • backpack: random stuff tends to get collected there
  • phone text messages
  • phone call log
  • phone notebook: I use a note taking application on my smartphone as a replacement for a notebook, when I can, because my handwriting font is abysmally hard to read
  • e-mail: this is two inboxes (personal vs work); I no longer have a separate folder for each mailing list, everything goes into the same inbox
  • feeds: blogs, news sites, etc.
  • home directory for each computer I regularly use: tends to collect random downloaded files, notes, etc.
  • web browser bookmarks: I move any bookmarks I want to keep to a link page on my website, the actual bookmarks are just a quick way to save something for later
  • all of my bug trackers: I develop software, each project has a bug tracker, and those need to be reviewed; unfortunately, it is not always possible to treat the bug tracker as a proper inbox as separate from an archive
  • inbox.mdwn: a plain text file (actually using markdown syntax), an all-purpose digital inbox for ideas, notes, URLs, phone numbers, etc.
  • all my ikiwiki instance’s comment moderation queues
  • unprocessed photos from camera phone, real cameras
  • laundry that is drying or is dry: this sometimes gets delivered on my desk by my partner, I then need to fold it and put it away; at other times I realize it’s dry fast enough to take it down from the clothesline first

Information overload

Sometimes processing inputs in this more efficient manner is still not enough. It may be that you’re getting so much input that it’s just not possible to deal with all of it. In that case, you need to filter away unwanted stuff automatically, or stop it from being sent to you in the first place.