Whether you’re dealing with mail, email, voicemail, memos, forms, or any other physical or virtual “pile-able” materials, the best filing system in the world will not help you if you can’t get the information from that email, voicemail, etc., into those files.
So how do you get that information moving? Productivity consultant David Allen provides a comprehensive how-to in his best-selling book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. He opens the book with the startling assertion that “it’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”
That may sound too good to be true, but the key is using your in-box wisely. “If you want to go for the gold, what you need to do is get your in-box zeroed out every 24 to 48 hours—paper as well as electronic,” says Allen.
What does it all mean?
Information that comes into your in-box is staged until you can assign it meaning, Allen explains. “You have to consider what I call the mighty meaning of ‘might-mean,’” he says. “Everything you receive might be something useful, might be something funny, might be something cool, might be something you don’t need at all—but you can’t tell right away.”
Here are some tips to help you discover that meaning and get your in-box moving:
1. Set aside a time to go through your in-box. Remember, it’s a processing station, not a storage depot, so you should be clearing it out regularly. But emptying your in-box doesn’t require that you complete everything in it. Rather, your goal is to figure out what everything is and how you’re going to deal with it.
2. Handle it top to bottom. If you handle the top thing first, and diligently process each item until you get to the bottom, then you’ll have an empty in-box. Jumping around tends to make you want to put things back in your in-box, and that’s a no-no.
3. Ask the right questions. As you process your in-box, evaluate it using the following series of questions:
a. Is this something you need to keep or something you should throw away? If you can throw it away, do so immediately.
b. For things you need to keep, is it something you need to act on or information you need to store? If you’re going to store it, put it in the appropriate place immediately.
c. For things you need to act on, is it something you can do in less than two minutes or something that will take more time? If you can do it in two minutes, go ahead and do it. If you can’t, add it to your “to-do” list, or whatever system you have for reminding you of actions.
4. Know when to pile. Sometimes you need piles, notes Allen, so that you can visually connect with the problem or project you’re working on. But don’t let unprocessed piles stack up. If you have several stacks of things to deal with, process all of them with the same diligence.
5. Create a “tickler” file. If you have to submit a form by a certain date next year, where do you put the form? The tickler file! Use 12 monthly folders and 31 daily folders to create a perpetual filing system. You can arrange your longer-term tasks by filing them into these folders. Each morning, retrieve your action reminders so that you can complete everything on schedule. Every time you empty a daily or monthly folder, move it to the back of the bunch so it becomes “next month” or “next year.”
Keep it flowing
It takes practice and determination to manage your in-box, but once you master it, you won’t drop details. “Your in-box is really just a holding station,” says Allen, who also has a free e-newsletter packed with productivity tips available at his website, www.davidco.com. “As long as you’re going to see the bottom of it in a reasonable amount of time, you can throw anything in there and let your brain relax until you can get to it.”