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Inbox Master: Get all your inboxes to zero, and have fewer inboxes

Every Monday is Productivity & Organization Day at Zen Habits.

How many different ways do you get information? Five kinds of emails, text messages, voicemails, paper documents, regular mail, blog posts, messages on different online services (MySpace, Facebook, Netscape, et al) … the list could go on and on, and your processing of information certainly does. It’s an endless process, but it doesn’t have to be exhausting or stressful.

Getting your information management down to a less stressful level, to a more manageable level, and into a productive zone only takes a few simple steps. Read on for more, and your poor reading eyes will thank you.

First stage: Minimize your inboxes. Every place you have to go to check your messages or to read your incoming information is an inbox, and the more you have, the harder it is to manage everything. Cut the number of inboxes you have down to the smallest number possible for you to still function in the ways you need to. Here’s how:

  1. List all the ways you receive information. You might forget a few at first, but as you remember new ways, add them to the list. The list should include digital and analog information — paper and computer.
  2. Evaluate each to see if it gives you value. Sometimes we continue to check certain inboxes even if it’s not adding anything to our lives. It’s just more stuff to check. Have a pager when you also have a cell phone? Maybe the pager isn’t any use to you anymore.
  3. Find ways to combine or eliminate inboxes. If something’s not giving you value, consider eliminating it from your life. See if you can go a week without missing it. For all the rest, see if you can combine multiple information streams into one inbox. For example, how many places in your home do incoming papers get placed? Have one inbox at home for all mail, papers from work, school papers, phone notes, computer printouts, schedules, and more. Have four email services? See if you can forward them all to one service. Get different voicemails? Try forwarding them to one service, or use an internet service to deliver them to your email inbox. At work, have one inbox for all incoming paperwork. Read a lot of blogs? Put them all into a feedreader, in a single stream of posts, instead of having to check 25 different inboxes. The fewer inboxes you have, the better. Aim for 4-7 inboxes if possible.

Second stage: Master your inboxes. This stage will sound familiar to my long-time readers, but it should be covered here: Don’t allow your inboxes to overflow. This will create a huge backlog of stuff for you to go through, and it will definitely stress you out. Instead, become the master of your inboxes. Here’s how:

  1. Check and process your inboxes once a day. For some inboxes, you may need to check more than once (I check my email every hour), but don’t check constantly and obsessively. That just wastes your time and cuts into your productivity and real life. But don’t check less than once a day, because otherwise you’ll allow it to pile up. Piles are your enemy.
  2. Process it from the top down, making quick and immediate decisions. Start with the top item in your inbox, and make an immediate decision. Don’t skip over it or put it back in or delay the decision. Here are your choices: delete, delegate to someone else, do it immediately (if it takes 2 minutes or less), or defer it for later (add it to your to-do list). In all cases, don’t leave the item in your inbox. Delete or file it. Work your way down through each item until your inbox is empty. Note: if you have hundreds of items in your inbox, it might be good to toss them all into a folder to be processed later (and schedule a couple hours to do that), and then start this process with all new items from that point on.
  3. Repeat this process, to keep your inboxes empty. If you’ve minimized the number of inboxes you have, this shouldn’t be too hard. Celebrate when your inbox is empty! It’s a wonderful feeling. Remember: Don’t check them all day long — schedule your processing time — and definitely don’t have instant notification on.

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