Love it or hate it, you need an Inbox: 3 ways we use inboxes that waste time and 1 framework to optimize your inbox use

Picture of Dr. Jay Aguda

A few months ago, I found myself playing with my iPhone, opening apps that I hadn’t used in a while, deleting those that were taking up space and stumbling across the Gmail app. Now, this is my personal cell phone, and not my work phone, and by looking at the apps that were installed, I clearly prioritized social media and entertainment over productivity on this phone as opposed to my work-issued one.

Perhaps it’s the red background of that badge that gives you the productivity anxieties, but there it was a big 1,321 in white on top of a red background, that hovered on top of the Gmail icon.

I hate that icon. It’s a notification, yes. Which, I guess, is there to notify you of unread email so that you would, in theory, act on them and clear them out. Surely the designer of these badges never intended them to remain a permanent fixture of the Gmail icon.

And that’s where I was. Even though this was my personal phone, I sat there in a funk, knowing that there was some work ahead of me. Cleanup work, mostly. But…where there’s a process, there’s a way.

Let’s face it. Inboxes are daunting. They are easily construed (or misconstrued) as an indicator of our capacity and how busy we are and, as a result, tend to affect our own morale and mental health. But inboxes are needed in your daily life. Think about it, you need a place for things to go so that your home doesn’t get all cluttered up. That place doesn’t necessarily need to be tidy.

Let’s face it. Inboxes are daunting. They are easily construed (or misconstrued) as an indicator of our capacity and how busy we are…

Inbox Time-Waster #1: Unread First

Most webmail apps have a feature that puts all unread emails first in your inbox. While I love the idea of hiding emails that you’ve already read, if you don’t have a process that allows you to deal with your inbox, having unread messages be front and center while older emails are hidden could very well cause you to lose track of important emails that you’ve already read that are critical or need action.

Inbox Time-Waster #2: Relying on Tags or Folders

I used to get caught in the trap of categorization without a process for action. You might’ve gone down this path:

  • Get a new email with a lead
  • Tag the email with a colorful “New Lead” tag
  • File the email into the “New Lead” folder

Problem with simply relying tags or folders when you receive something in an inbox is that there isn’t a next step or process to follow up. You simply move the item into another “inbox”.

Inbox Time-Waster #3: Consistently Watching an Inbox

Do you have your inbox open constantly? Do you have your inbox in a separate tab available for you to check on at any moment in time? Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, explains that this kind of behavior is actually a distraction, constantly drawing your attention away from what he calls “Deep Work” — a prolonged set of time where you are able to focus on highly impactful projects and tasks.

The Inbox Process: A Framework that Makes an Inbox Work for You and Not You for the Inbox

Doing it all is NOT practical

Let’s start with an analogy. Inboxes are like your dresser or your closet at home. Imagine the “simple” task of packing for your next trip. While packing your entire wardrobe for your next trip would certainly solve the issue of running out of clothes during your trip, it’s simply not practical to do so.

Let’s unpack the analogy further: While being able get to every item in your inbox sounds like it would get you to inbox 0 the quickest, it’s simply not practical to do so.

Inbox 0 is not the goal — completing tasks that need your attention with quality is

Consider what you want to accomplish as well as your capacity to accomplish these things in the time you have

So then what would you pack? Well, that depends on the purpose trip. What you pack for your Maui vacation will be much different than packing for a business trip to New York City. Perhaps, to make this easier, you’ll have a checklist for what you need to pack for each kind of trip. You, too, should have a purpose for your day or your week when you look at an inbox.

Oh there’s another thing you should think of when packing: Space. Space is a premium in your luggage. When you pack for that business trip, you’ll obviously prioritize your work clothes over your leisure clothes, and this will be reflected in the space allotted for these types of clothing in your luggage. Think of your own premium commodity when it comes to tasks: your time. So, the challenge here is to consider your time and your purpose and optimize your time to tackle these things.

Triage / Prioritize Tasks

So then, what items from your inbox do you tackle first? That’s a great question, one option is to use the Eisenhower Matrix for prioritization, which I blog about in this post. Regardless of the method, you should spend some time prioritizing your inbox. Prioritizing is not categorization as described in Time Waster #2, although it may involve some categorization. Prioritization results in developing a list of actions that you can do now or save for later. Think: triage in an emergency room. The most important, urgent, or combo of the two, get your attention first–these you act on and move on.

Put items that didn’t make the cut back into your inbox

So yeah, your new swim trunks aren’t going to make it into your luggage on this trip. Accept it. Deal with it. While you can imagine some downtime to explore the hotel pool, you simply don’t have the time or the space in your luggage to pack that garment…so you put it back in the drawer for another trip.

If your heart was set on answering that email or doing that task that ended up being prioritized lower, and you ended up realizing you can’t get to it this round, it’s ok to put it back into your inbox (more on why in the next section)! You will get to it again in the next round of prioritization.

Your fovea is a part of your retina that has the most visual acuity. While you can see things in your peripheral vision, what’s directly in front of you in your fovea is what gets all your attention. The idea here is that the items you have prioritized get all your attention, anything else is a distraction, so remove them…don’t throw them away, just return them back to the inbox. Or, if you’re using email, Boomerang or Snooze them to return at a later date. Whatever you do, get them out of your fovea for this cycle.

Process your Inbox on a set cadence

Congrats, you’ve made it this far. You’ve started your own inbox processing process. As suggested above, items that don’t make the cut this cycle get put right back into the inbox for processing again later. This means that inbox processing needs to happen frequently, on a cadence that is not so frequent it becomes distracting, but at a cadence that is optimized for your time.

The idea here is that you create a cycle of inbox processing. Each cycle begins with processing your inbox and then doing the tasks related to the items you’ve prioritized in your process.

Back to the trips analogy–no you’re not going on a trip every day. That’s impractical and tiring. In the same way, make your visits to your inbox a routine, but not something you do every minute or every 30 minutes (see Time Waster #3). Find a cycle time that works for you — you might want to try a few cycles of this to determine your cycle time. In my practice, I tend to process my Task inbox once per day, while my email is processed once in the morning and once again in the afternoon.

Inbox 0 is not the goal — completing tasks that need your attention with quality is

Inbox 0 is a temporary state that is a result of many cycles of inbox processing. While I understand the draw to get to inbox 0, it’s important to understand that simply getting there is not the goal. Completing tasks that are impactful and with quality is what matters most. You can accomplish this with inbox processing.

Once you get to Inbox 0, it’s a fleeting moment of bliss, because if you’ve got a job you love doing, items will continuously flow into your inbox the moment you slide into Inbox 0 contentment.

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