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Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.

By Eilidhmcauley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis post is about a core habit that helps me to reduce everyday stress: emptying inboxes. I’m not just talking about getting my email to “inbox zero” every so often. I’m talking about identifying all my inboxes in life, and daily emptying them. That means getting all the vaguely undefined and stressful “stuff” out of those inboxes and into my trusted system, where they can do some good.


(This blog series is about habits and personal organisation structures I’ve developed over the years for “sustainable sacrifice” in Christian ministry. They’re specific to my own situation, so if you think any of them are worthwhile you may have to adapt them. For more information about the purpose of this series see the first post: Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice.)


In a previous post, I discussed the value of a trusted system. This is a system where I store things so I don’t have to keep them in my brain. It’s called a “trusted” system because I have organised it so I can be confident that the things will be there for me where and when I need them.

cumulation-154203_640But of course, the system is not static. All day, every day, new stuff comes in that needs to be dealt with. If the stuff is not dealt with, it just becomes a source of stress, and I stop trusting my system. So the stuff needs to be collected. Then it needs to be regularly sorted and used to update the system. The “inboxes” are the various parts of the system that hold the stuff, ready to be processed.

I’ve developed a habit to clear and sort these inboxes, every day. This habit really helps.

My inboxes

An “inbox” isn’t just an email thing. It’s anything that holds inputs: ideas, tasks, emails, commitments, prayer points, receipts, etc. The stuff comes in various forms, so it arrives in various different kinds of “inboxes”. Here are the inboxes I’ve identified in my life (see also my post Building blocks of a trusted system):

Physical inboxes

  • My letter box at home
  • My mail tray at work
  • A pocket in my wallet, where I put receipts and bits of paper / notes from conversations if I need to follow up
  • The notepad I keep by my bed in case I think of anything at night
  • My A4 folder, with pockets “Inbox”, “File@Home”, “File@Work”

Electronic inboxes

  • Feedly, which I use to keep track of blogs
  • Unread / starred items in my email inbox.
  • Messages people have sent me on Facebook and Twitter
  • Text messages
  • Photos and videos I’ve taken on my phone
  • Shared computer files where my colleagues put information about shared projects (e.g. courses I co-teach with others)
  • The Inbox in Omnifocus, where I put stuff directly if I’ve had an idea that needs to be acted on or a conversation that needs to be followed up

For more information on these, see my previous post: Building blocks of a trusted system.

How I process the stuff

This is what I do with these inboxes every day, normally at the end of the working day.

(You’ll notice that my task management system Omnifocus features quite heavily in what follows. If you want to adapt any of these ideas, you’ll need to tweak them for whatever task management system you use).

Physical stuff

First, I take all the physical stuff from my mail tray at work, my letter box at home, my wallet, the notepad by my bed, and anything else in my physical folder, and put it in a pile. Then I take each physical thing and decide what to do with it. The main aim at this first stage is to convert the physical stuff to electronic form (if possible). So I ask:

  • Is it a prayer point to put straight into PrayerMate, or a receipt to put straight into MoneyWiz? File it there.
  • Is it something I need to keep a record of? Capture it using Scannable (which sends it to Evernote).
  • Is it something that generates a future action? Enter the action quickly in the Omnifocus inbox.
  • Is it something that generates an appointment? Put it into the Calendar.
  • Is it something that has to be filed physically? File it.
  • Is it something that doesn’t have to be kept? Throw it away, or shred it.

Electronic stuff

Then I process the electronic inboxes, in this order:

  • Feedly: If there are any blog posts I need to read later, share them to Evernote. Then mark all the blog posts as “read”.
  • Email: For each email that is marked as “unread” or “starred”:
    • If I need to reply, and if I can reply straight away (i.e. in less than two minutes), reply.
    • If I need to create an action to reply or do something else later, send it to the Omnifocus inbox. My email program, Airmail, automatically generates an Omnifocus task with a link back to the original email.
    • If it generates an appointment, put it in the calendar.
    • If I need to file the information, send it to Evernote. Again, Airmail enables me to generate an Evernote note automatically with a link back to the original email.
    • Then, mark it as “read” or remove the star.
  • Text messages, Facebook messages, Twitter messages: same as for email. Except it’s not as automatic to link to Omnifocus, so I often have to do some copying and pasting into Omnifocus.
  • Videos and photos: For each photo or video:
    • If I want to keep it, file it in the appropriate place; e.g. my Dropbox Workbench, or Evernote or Google Drive, etc.
    • If it needs to be acted on later, make a note of the action in Omnifocus inbox.
    • Delete it from my phone.
  • Shared projects: Check for anything my colleagues have done that might generate actions for me. Make a note of these actions in the Omnifocus inbox.
  • Evernote: For each item in Evernote:
    • Make sure it has a proper title and tags so I can search for it later
    • If it needs to be acted on later, create an action in the Omnifocus inbox. Make sure the action has a link back to Evernote.
  • The “waiting on” list in Omnifocus: This is a list of things I’m waiting on other people to do. If I need to chase anything up, create a new action in the Omnifocus inbox.

Turning the stuff into proper tasks

At the end of this process, I’m left with a whole lot of actions in my Omnifocus inbox. I now have to integrate these actions into my Omnifocus system. That means I have to turn them into proper “tasks”, assign a commitment and a zone, possibly defer them or give them a due date, etc. But at this point, I’ll stop describing what I do. In my next post in this series, I’ll talk about how to turn the inbox into a set of proper tasks which is integrated into my trusted system. See the post: Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work.

Do I really have time to do this every day?

This inbox emptying process takes a bit of time each day; sometimes 20-30 minutes. So you might ask: Do I really have the time to do this each day? Surely I’m too busy?

The answer is simple: I don’t have time not to do it. Emptying my inboxes every day actually saves time. It gets me ready for the next day, and it enables me to keep track of what I supposed to do. The question of whether I have time to empty my inboxes every day is a meaningless question. It’s like asking whether I have the time to clean my teeth every day, or empty the rubbish regularly, or sleep. It’s part of life, and it makes everything else work well, so of course I have the time! If I don’t do it, I end up wasting far more time dealing with the results of not having dealt with the stuff in the first place.

As I’ve said before, none of this is a perfect system, and I fail at time. But I’ve found this habit of properly emptying inboxes each day a very useful habit to get into, and it helps me to live a life of sustainable sacrifice.

The posts in the series so far

  1. Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice
  2. Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications
  3. Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place
  4. Building blocks of a trusted system
  5. Capturing wild commitments
  6. Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life
  7. Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.
  8. Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work
  9. The weekly review: Planning for sustainable sacrifice
  10. The trusted system: a week in the life

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