Advanced Collecting: Inbox Management

This article first appeared on Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue Collecting, subscribe and buy here

Collection (sometimes referred to as capture) is a concept that should be familiar to many people who have dabbled in one productivity system or another.

Simply put, Collection is the method by which you gather the “stuff” that is happening in your life so that you can then do something with it at some point. If you have no conscious approach to collecting, it will happen by accident. A well-designed collection method, on the other hand, will enable you to process and prioritize much more effectively.

A little more about Collection

Bojan and I are developing this productivity approach we call CORE (Collect, Organize, Review, Eliminate).  It’s not rocket science, nor is it a revolutionary break away from other recognized productivity approaches.  What’s fundamental to CORE, however, is that it’s designed to be a customizable template, to be adapted and molded by you, to fit what works best for you.  CORE starts out with the assertion “you know best how you like to get stuff done, so who are we to tell you different?”.

Collecting is a key part of CORE, and in this article, we’re not going to tell you how to do it, we’re going to tell you how *we* do it.

It’s all about inboxes

Chances are you already have many inboxes.  Some are obvious: Unless you’ve managed to hide in a nuclear bunker for the last 10-20 years you have an email account, and that’s an inbox (this one’s really easy to spot; it’s called “inbox”).  If like me you work for a corporation of some sort, you’ll probably have a work inbox too.

Other inboxes are less obvious: Your diary or calendar can often function as in inbox; any “to do” lists or notebooks you keep can be inboxes too.  Reading lists/Read It Later queues are inboxes, and magazines or newspapers you’re keeping to read are inboxes of sorts too.

inbox management

Your phone is almost certainly an inbox, and you may have social media inboxes too.  If you have stuff to do that you haven’t written down, you’ve also got a mental inbox.

So where am I going with all of this?  The fact is, keeping track of all these inboxes and the stuff they collect is HARD. Without some kind of strategy for managing these inboxes, it’s easy for stuff to go missing or get forgotten.

“You know best how you like to get stuff done, so who are we to tell you different?”

Reduce your inboxes

It’s an easy thing to say “have a single inbox”, but it’s a hard (impossible?) thing to do.  I actually prefer having inboxes that play a specific role, but I do agree that every inbox you maintain adds complexity to the job of keeping on top of your stuff.

Therefore I definitely recommend reviewing your inboxes and seeing whether they’re all required.  Do you have multiple Read It Later accounts?  Do they each have a specific purpose? If you do, and they’re not distinct, consider merging them. Do you have different email addresses?  Are you clear why?  Could you achieve the same outcome with a single, better-managed email account? Then get rid of the others.

My inboxes basically boil down to:

– Work email (don’t have any choice on that one)

– Personal email

– Read It Later (Pocket)

– Task Management (Nozbe or Omnifocus)

– Calendar (Fantastical)

– Notebook (“Paper” for iPad)

Understand the difference between an inbox and an archive

You may or may not subscribe to the “Inbox Zero” method (I’m a big fan), but I do think one of its basic principles – separating the stuff you need to *process* of the stuff you need to *keep* is a useful one regardless.

Keeping your inboxes cleared down is a useful habit to get into.  To achieve it, you need to identify where you’re going to put stuff that you don’t need to *organize* (or stuff you don’t need to *action*, if that’s how you’re doing it).  It doesn’t really matter where this archive is,  provided that you’re using it effectively.

Some technology inboxes come with their own archive – Gmail and iCloud have an archiving facility, as does Pocket – in other situations you’ll need to create your own.  I recommend using Evernote as a place to put stuff you want to keep for future reference, but that doesn’t require your immediate attention.

Do you need to Collect EVERYTHING?

It’s quite natural to want to manage down the amount of stuff in your inboxes at any time (in fact it’s very sensible).  On the whole, finding ways of stopping stuff from hitting your inbox (unsubscribing from newsletters, saying NO more often) is a sensible strategy.  Where people tend to fall down, is by not collecting things they *need*, usually by not writing things down, saying things like “I’ll do that in a minute” or “I’ll remember to do that.”  Effective collection means capturing everything that you need to process, even if doing so results in a cold-sweat-inducing heap of stuff that makes you want to lie down in a darkened room for an hour after seeing it.

Figure out what works for you

The general rule for Collecting is pretty simple: figure out what your inboxes are and why they’re there, and get into the habit of collecting everything you need to process into one (and ONLY one) of those inboxes.  Which inbox you choose, whether digital or paper, folder-based or not, is entirely up to you.  Personally, I collect a lot of stuff in sketch note form, and I use my Outlook inbox heavily to organize my work day.  Figure out what works for you, then stick to it and don’t let anybody tell you that their way is “better”.

If in doubt, collect EVERYTHING until you’ve figured out what things are important and what you can learn to ignore…you can always discard it later.