Advertising
Advertising

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. :-)

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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!

    Advertising

    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!

    More by this author

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed Back to Basics: Your Calendar Learn Something New Every Day 10 Tips for More Effective PowerPoint Presentations

    Trending in Featured

    1The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) 240 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2018 Updated) 3How to Overcome Procrastination and Start Doing What Matters 4Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed 5The Gentle Art of Saying No

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

    Advertising

    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

    Advertising

    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

    Advertising

    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

    Advertising

    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Read Next