I’m not one of those people who feels busy all the time. I typically never feel overwhelmed no matter how much is on my plate. But I know and have worked with lots of people who always seem to be in a hurry and are frazzled trying to remember all the tasks in front of them.
I’ve never been able to understand the mindset of the perpetually busy person. I don’t at all mean that to sound condescending. It’s just not in my nature to feel overwhelmed very often.
I really do believe that a big reason for why I tend to stay calm even during my busiest times is that I fully trust my (mostly) digital organization system for running my life. And a key part of believing in my system is knowing that any time an actionable piece of information comes my way, I have a dedicated inbox I can place it into where I know it won’t be forgotten or overlooked.
And that’s the purpose of an inbox – whether digital or physical. It’s a dumping ground where you can safely store everything you need to do but haven’t yet had time to process, schedule, or fully examine. Then, during your regularly scheduled review or whenever you have time, you can go through the contents of your inbox and either act on, defer, or delete its contents.
Today I thought I’d share my various inboxes and how I use them.
If you’ve read any of the other productivity posts on this blog, you’ll know I’m a heavy OmniFocus user. It’s my first and primary inbox. Any time I’m at my Mac and I come across something that needs doing, a keyboard shortcut launches the app’s quick entry window. I can type in my task, press return, and go back to my work knowing the task is captured and waiting for review the next time I process my inbox. When I’m away from my Mac, new tasks go straight into my inbox by way of the OmniFocus iPhone app. In almost any situation, I’m able to capture my tasks without breaking the flow of whatever else I’m doing.
I have a default Evernote notebook titled “@Inbox” where all of my new notes go. Every piece of information I clip from the web or capture from some other source is initially filed into @Inbox. Once a week, during my OmniFocus weekly review, I’ll go through all the notes I created last week and sort them into a permanent notebook. (The “@” at the front of “Inbox” keeps the notebook sorted to the top of Evernote’s notebook list.)
I’m also a heavy user of Drafts on iOS. It’s the fastest way to write down any amount of text that you plan on doing something with later. When people dictate their phone number or email address to me, I’ll typically capture it into Drafts and then add it to a real address book contact later. Also, many of my blog posts begin in Drafts. It’s very common for me to have the inspiration for a new post while I’m away from the computer. I’ll use Drafts to jot down the topic and maybe even a few sentences worth of ideas I want to be sure to include. Later, I’ll move that text into a proper draft post in WordPress where it will sit until I flesh it out into a completed post.
I also use my (unreleased) iOS app Upshot to quickly capture photos, videos, and audio recordings. Everything I capture with the app is immediately uploaded to a Dropbox folder for future processing. Processing that folder happens (of course) during my weekly review.
My final digital inbox is literally my Gmail inbox. As I wrote previously about my email habits, the only emails in my inbox are either unread or something I need to act on. That guarantees I never have to spend time scanning over my inbox for emails that no longer matter. Everything in it requires an action of some kind – even if it’s as simple as deleting the message.
So those are my digital inboxes. But what about the physical world? Unsurprisingly, my solution is to scan everything into digital form.
Next to our front door is a literal inbox hanging on the wall. All of our snail mail and any other papers we acquire go into it. Once or twice a week I’ll empty it and bring everything into my office. Every piece of paper is either thrown away or scanned into PDF form with my ScanSnap and then shredded. My goal is to remain as paperless as possible. And other than a few mortgage documents stored in a fire safe, there’s zero paperwork in my office. Everything is in OCR’d PDF form and safely stored in Dropbox, where it’s sorted into an appropriate folder for future reference.
One workflow detail: When I scan a document, the built-in ScanSnap software automatically OCR’s the text and saves the document as a PDF into a Dropbox folder named “_Inbox”. It’s not uncommon for there to be 10 – 15 PDFs in that folder at any given time. But, like everything else I’ve written about, during my weekly review I’ll review each PDF and file it away into a permanent folder.
And that’s it. Those are the seven inboxes where every piece of information, task, or document begins its journey into my trusted system.
For folks reading this, all of the above may sound insane. But it really is a simple system once you have the right tools and workflow in place. And it’s actually kind of liberating. I never have to deal with a computer monitor covered in sticky notes of things I have to remember. Instead, I’m confident that everything is in it’s correct place where it won’t be forgotten or overlooked. And that confidence leads to a clear mind free of open loops (to use David Allen’s term) so I can focus on the actual work in front of me.