Lifehacker had a pointer to an article from New York Times technology guy David Pogue on how he stays organized.  He rejects Inbox Zero (the idea of emptying your inbox constantly and using GTD-like decision making to send email to your lists) and, instead, uses his inbox as a to-do list.

It was refreshing to hear someone else admit it.  I can’t seem to break that habit either.  I have tried, but found myself with too many places to look for what I needed to do next.

Having said that, I have fine tuned the art of using my inbox as a to do list.  Gmail does some of this for me, but at the day job we are locked into Outlook so I have to do it manually.  Specifically:

  • Only one reference to each task in the inbox.  If there are 50 messages, keep just the last one in the inbox.  The rest go to the folder that they will end up in when the effort is complete.  (This is where gmail’s threading is hugely helpful.)
  • Keep the inbox down to one screen with no need to scroll.  If it has to go onto a second screen, it is time to do some clean up and catch up.
  • It’s ok to leave something in the inbox pending more information to make a decision, but try not to leave anything in there just out of avoidance.  If all the information to make a decision is available, do it.  Same goes for avoiding writing hard responses; pull of the band-aid and get on with your day.
  • The 2-minute rule still applies; if you takes less than two minutes, just do it.
  • Gmail specific: Use multiple inboxes to sort different types of activities while still having them all visible on a single screen.  For example, I often send myself things to read later when I have some time.  I label those items @READING and archive them.  They then appear in the secondary inbox on my screen so that I don’t lose them, but they also don’t keep me from finding things I need to address sooner.  This could also be done for all mail related to a blog in order to batch process responses, approving comments, and keeping up with administrative tasks.

Inbox Zero is a great system if you using GTD fully and looking at your lists regularly, but that isn’t me.  However there is a place between zero and thousands of messages in the inbox that can be very productive, and that is where I am trying to live.