This post is part of a series on personal productivity. You should also check out The Four Things Everyone Should Have in their Productivity System and Your Inbox is Not Your To Do List.
So in my prior posts I wrote about how every productivity system has both inboxes and to-do lists. A little later I wrote about how your inbox is not your to-do list. Now that we’ve established that these are two separate things, it’s time to talk about how they work together.
One key word: processing.
When you process, you go through your inbox and move things into other places they need to go in your productivity system. The end result is that you have nothing left in your inbox. This is where the term “inbox zero” comes from – I’m sure you’ve heard it around the internet.
The most important (and hardest rule) about processing is that when you check your inboxes (email, physical, whatever) you have to process the whole thing. In a way, this is a helpful motivation to avoid checking email compulsively. If I check email, I have to process it. It’s amazing how un-motivating it is to check email when you actually have to do work as part of checking it.
Here is the processing diagram that I use. Various other people have their own versions, but this simple one takes care of most situations.
In this diagram, you start with an item in your inbox. That could be an email, a piece of paper, or maybe a sticky note on your desk. You ask yourself the question, “Does this require me to do something?”
Often, the answer to this question is no! You just had to read the email, or see the sticky note, but there’s nothing that you have to do about it. In that case, you can just throw it away or file it away for reference if you might need it in the future.
Side note: For my email, I put pretty much everything in one big “archive” folder. It takes too much time to have subfolders. If I need to find something, I can search for it and find it. We’ll talk more about this in my post on filing systems.
Sometimes, the answer to “Does this require me to do something?” is yes. In that case, you have a new question to answer. Can I do this in five minutes or less? Five minutes is an arbitrary number – you could make it three – but the point is that if it’s something short that you can quickly accomplish, just do it. Right there. Right then.
So if you get an email from your grandmother asking if you’re coming to visit next weekend, and if it takes you less than five minutes to look at your calendar and see that you’re free, then immediately email back a yes and put it on your calendar.
If you get an email from a co-worker asking a quick question and it takes you less than five minutes to type back an answer then just do it. Type that answer back and send it right away.
Many tasks require more time than five minutes to complete. So, if the answer to “Can I do this in five minutes or less?” is no, then you need to put that task on your to-do list.
In the case of email, you may get an email that is going to take about 10-15 minutes to type up a response. You don’t do it right then because it’s going to take longer than five minutes. So instead, you put it on your to-do list: Write Craig back a response with my programming idea for men’s conference. Then you put that email in another folder (I use one called “Hold”) and you keep processing your inbox.
When you’re finished, you will have new tasks on your to-do list, new entries on your calendar and nothing in your inbox.
Then you can turn your attention away from your inbox, and go to your to-do list to determine what the best thing is that you can be doing with your time at that moment. The to-do list will be the topic of my next guest post.