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Back to Basics: Your Inbox

Back to Basics: Your Inbox

Your Inbox

    This is the first post in an ongoing series I’m calling “back to Basics”, a “refresher course” in personal productivity. For people just starting to grapple with issues of productivity, it will serve as an introduction to the basic concepts that underlie much of what we write here at Lifehack. For more advanced readers, it will serve as a reminder of what you thought you were setting out to do before you started fiddling with your system.

    I’m not sure how long the series will be – I intend to keep going until a) I run out of topics to cover, or b) people start asking me to stop. :-)

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    Your Inbox

    We start, then, where most productivity systems start: your inbox. By “inbox”, I don’t necessarily mean one of those plastic or wooden trays you set on your desk and pile everything into; that’s one kind of inbox, but not the only kind. Basically, an inbox is any place where you collect inputs into your life for later processing, whether those inputs are information, correspondence, notes, unfinished work, things you intend to look at later, or whatever.

    An inbox, then, can be a tray in your office, a table by your front door, a notebook you carry in your purse or pocket, or a pocket in your shoulder bag. We also have “virtual” inboxes: your email program, your RSS reader, note-organizing apps like Evernote, even a text or word processing file you keep open on your desktop. And don’t forget your computer monitor – if you’re one of those people who covers their monitor with post-its, that, too, is an inbox.

    The Fewer, the Better

    As a general rule, the fewer inboxes you have, the better. Fewer inboxes means less places where important material can escape your notice, and also less time to process everything you need out of them.

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    As a practical matter, your inboxes should be treated as end-points, with all your various inputs funneling towards them. As I said, this assures that everything eventually gets put in a place where you’re going to pay some attention to it.

    With more and more of us using online web applications, it’s becoming quite easy to make sure your digital inputs end up in a single place. Most services will allow you to send things easily to your email, and you can set up rules to automatically forward stuff where it needs to end up, thus automating some of the processing of your inbox. For example, you could have all emails with attachments forwarded automatically to your Google Docs account so you can access them and even edit them from just about anywhere (that’s assuming you don’t regularly receive documents whose value you need to ascertain before deciding what you need to do with it).

    For physical inputs, make sure everyone knows where to put things that they want you to see and do something about – mail, documents to review, research material, whatever. At work, this tends not to be so difficult; at home it will be another story! You’ll help make sure that your chosen inbox is seen as a place to put things that need action if you regularly process it’s contents so that it doesn’t become a place where inputs go to be forgotten.

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    And make sure you set an example by using your inbox yourself! When you’re away from your desk or from home, keep a notebook or pack of index cards with you and jot notes, appointments, numbers, etc. down as they come to you. When you get to your inbox, drop it in and process it according to your normal schedule. If you don’t make good use of your inbox, nobody else will.

    An Inbox Alone Isn’t Productive

    It’s important that your inboxes not be treated as final destinations! An inbox is only useful as a place to collect everything that’s important, to get it out of your head so that you can do something with it. Inboxes that just keep filling up are worse than useless; not only do they not help you do the things that are important enough to you to end up in your inbox, but they soon overflow and leave you in search of a new inbox to fill with all your new important stuff. All the while you get further and further behind…

    Set up an inbox-cleaning routine that fits your workstyle and the rate at which it fills. While you don’t want to let it fill to overflowing, you also don’t want to feel compelled to process everything the moment it hits your inbox. The point of your inbox is to help you manage your inputs, not to allow your inputs to manage you!

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    Next Time: Processing Your Inbox

    In the next “Back to Basics” post, we’ll look at ways of processing the material that ends up in your inboxes. While it might take some effort and discipline to make sure your inboxes are used effectively, maintaining an inbox is a largely passive affair: stuff keeps filling your inbox whether you do anything or not. Processing is the first part of doing, where you start making active decisions about what to do with each item in your inbox.

    Do you have any useful tips to help your fellow readers channel all their inputs into one place? Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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