Are you absolutely sure you’ve processed all your inboxes?

New systems can be wonderful for helping to manage our complex lives. But they can bring yet another channel for potentially relevant and meaningful input. The more inboxes you need to process, the more likely you’ll overlook one of them. The impact can range from inconsequential to disastrous depending on what you missed.

photo credit: adapted from yomo 13 via flickr cc

photo credit: adapted from yomo 13 via flickr cc

David Allen has often said, “you can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what it is”. You can’t get a complete picture of your options if there is stuff1 lurking in an inbox that you’ve forgotten to process. Fortunately, this is easy to fix by making a checklist of all your inboxes and using it during your weekly review.

The inbox checklist

Let’s take a look at the inboxes that might be part of your life. Are there any that have crept into your workflow that you’re not processing regularly?

Digital collection buckets

  • Task manager inbox. One inbox to rule them all? Not even close.
  • Drafts. Drafts is a great app for quickly capturing ideas and tasks and later dispatching them to the system where they belong.
  • Email inboxes. Email inboxes are hard to overlook. Chances are you have at least one work and personal email inbox.
  • SMS and instant message services. Tasks arriving through this medium are easy to overlook if you can’t action them or capture them immediately. Whether you use Slack, Facebook, Google or another service, some of this communication will be actionable.
  • Reference system inbox. Evernote is still the major repository for my reference information. During the week my inbox accumulates web clippings, pages scanned from my notebook, and notes I’ve entered directly.
  • Cloud storage inboxes. I use Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud for various functions. I have an inbox folder in each of these services for items that need further processing.
  • Camera roll. This one is easy to overlook. My use of images as a trigger for later action has grown over the last couple of years. Before I added it to my checklist, I often forgot to process my camera roll. You could have several of these if you use more than one device.
  • Team workflow systems. If your team uses a CRM, project management, incident management or bug tracking system, you’ll have another inbox here to process.
  • Downloads and Desktop folders. I can’t believe I missed these. Perhaps it’s because my Downloads folder is a digital detritus dumping ground in desperate need of a detox.

Analog tools

  • Notebook . I carry an A5 notebook just about everywhere. This is where most of my ideas and tasks start out.
  • Car notebook. Sometimes I need to scrawl down a quick note when traveling (when I’ve stopped of course).
  • Desk notebook. There’s always some paper on my desk for capturing quick notes if my main notebook isn’t handy.
  • Notebook by the phone. I hardly ever use the home phone anymore. It’s always a good idea to have some paper and a pen near any fixed phone line.
  • Shower slate. Ideas occur in inconvenient places. An earlier post covers how I capture ideas that happen in the shower. Weird I know, but that’s how I roll.

Physical collection points

  • Briefcase/handbag and wallet/purse. These can accumulate all kinds of paperwork. You don’t want to wind up with a Costanza wallet.
  • Office in-tray. Still far more useful than I would have expected in the digital age.
  • Home in-tray. Everyone has one, though it might be disguised as the nearest flat surface when you enter your home.
  • Mobile in-tray. I carry a plastic folder in my bag for collecting loose bits of paper, and for taking paperwork between home and the office.
  • Fax machine. Unlikely, but some people still have to deal with dinosaurs.

Voice messages

  • Voicemail. If you have a home, office, and mobile phone, that’s another three inboxes to keep clear.
  • Voice recorder or Voice Memos app. I rarely use this to capture information, but it’s an important part of the workflow for some.

Reading

  • Read-it-later service. Services like Instapaper and Pocket let you add content much faster than you can consume it. It doesn’t hurt to look through these periodically and purge stale content.
  • RSS. Another low priority inbox for content consumption.

Build your checklist

Use this checklist as a starting point for building your own. Each of us has a unique set of circumstances and preferred ways of working. There may be inboxes on my list that you’d never consider using. Conversely, other inboxes that are part of your workflow could be missing from my list.

Review your checklist once or twice each year. As your role or focus changes, you’ll find some collection points are no longer relevant, and new ones will have found their way into your workflow.

Not all inboxes are created equal

Do I process everything in all my inboxes every day? No chance! Not all your inboxes are created equal. While I usually clear my task manager inbox at least once per day, I’m comfortable processing my email inbox and notebook entries less often. Once or twice per week is enough for my physical in-trays and camera roll.

When it comes to my reference system inbox I play it fast and loose. It can be months before I process everything in there. That only works because nothing but reference material ever goes in. None of it is actionable. Evernote’s search works well. I can still find entries that are yet to be tagged and moved to the appropriate folder. 

The diagram below illustrates the point. I’ve only put some of my inboxes on here, but you get the idea.

More important inboxes are processed more often (click to enlarge)

More important inboxes are processed more often (click to enlarge)

Remember, this is all contextual. It works for my current circumstances but may not fit yours.

TL;DR summary

  1. You probably have stuff in more places than you realize.
  2. Make a checklist of all the inboxes in your life and review it once or twice a year. Use my list as a prompt for creating your own.
  3. Use your checklist as part of your weekly review. Some of your inboxes are easy to overlook.

Question: Did I miss any? Do you have any other inboxes I should add to the list? Leave a comment below.


  1. David Allen defines stuff as “anything that has appeared in one’s physical or psychological environment about which some decision or action is required but which is yet undetermined or unorganized.” 

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6 Responses

  1. Marco Navarra says:

    another great post John!

  2. John Scullen says:

    Thanks Cass for adding the Downloads folder to the list.

  3. John Scullen says:

    Briefcase/handbag and wallet/purse. Thanks Denise Hurd.

  4. John : Five (5) analog tools? I can’t believe it! I recommend “Supercharged Notes”, it works with a single A5 notebook. By one John Scullen…

    • John Scullen says:

      Very funny Daniel 🙂
      I’d say 95% or more is captured in my notebook. The rest is either in the car or the shower. I can’t remember the last time I used the other two, but they are ready if I need them.

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