Getting Things Done (GTD) with the Multi-Inbox Sweep

My History with Getting Things Done

I’d like to share a technique I use to keep organized and reduce my anxiety about my todo list. I have followed a Getting Things Done-like system for keeping my projects and tasks organized for a few years now. Adopting some parts of GTD helped me to reduce my stress about what I need to do.

Recently, I began to feel that anxiety again– the anxiety I get when I know my lists don’t encompass all my work. I realized that my personal subset of GTD was missing something. It didn’t account for how many inboxes I have. When I say inbox here, I mean in the GTD sense: any source of tasks, not just email.

When I started doing GTD, I had fewer inboxes. I had one business email account, a voicemail account which rarely had messages, and a desk where coworkers make requests.

Now, in addition to those, I’ve also got to manage GitHub issues and pull requests;  Intercom to handle support requests; Slack for communicating with the team and clients; a shared calendar for my appointments; contact forms on the web for recruiting and sales; Twitter to keep up with the world, the industry and the community; and of course LinkedIn for getting daily spam.

It is so much noise that it becomes easy to miss things. Manually remembering to check each one, and copy all the new tasks onto my list, is error-prone and a lot of manual labor.

Using GTD to solve the Multi-Inbox Problem

To solve this problem, I started doing a multi-inbox sweep everyday. I removed my stress again.

Here’s my procedure:

List your inboxes

I made a list of everywhere I receive tasks. Here’s the abridged version:

Electronic Inboxes

  • email
  • calendar
  •  GitHub issues
  •  GitHub PRs
  •  Slack
  •  Intercom
  • daily agile report
  • form submits
  • recent meeting minutes
  • text messages
  • voicemail
  •  Twitter

Physical

  • hipster PDA
  • USPS/UPS/Fedex
  • Household Matter Out of Place
  • Car

Yes, my car counts. My car makes check engine lights. A check engine light becomes a task. Since the car makes tasks, it is an inbox.

“Process” every inbox, every day

I check each inbox every day. I look at every task in each inbox, one at a time, and focus on only that task for a couple seconds. I force myself to make a decision about each one:

  • Delete
  • Delegate
  • Defer
  • Respond
  • Do

This is hard to do, because my brain retreats from anything boring or ambiguous. I have to consciously force myself back on track several times in one sweep.

I ripped off this method of processing an inbox from Merlin Mann’s classic (and incredibly misunderstood) Inbox Zero series. If you aren’t familiar with this way of processing, that’s the place to start.

Aside: Inbox Zero isn’t about having no email in your inbox. The zero is more like “zero energy” or “zero anxiety.”

When I finish processing an inbox, I check it off and don’t worry about it again until my next sweep.

Remove inboxes, reduce inboxes

Sweeps are easier if you have fewer inboxes. You can cut inboxes by:

  • No longer accepting work through an inbox. For example, I no longer accept drive-by tasks in the hall or at my desk. Write me an email or open a GitHub issue.
  • Realizing you don’t have to care about every inbox. There are certain social networks I’ve realized I just don’t care about enough to allow them to interfere with getting work done. I unsubscribed from the notifications and committed to not feeling bad about it.
  • Connecting two inboxes. If your tasks from one inbox can be automatically routed to another, then you have one fewer place to log in.

Sweeps are also easier if you cut the noise in each inbox:

  • De-duplicate. Often, a task landing in one inbox makes a notification in another. Turn these off. Since I check GitHub every day, I don’t need GitHub notifications in my email.
  • Unsubscribe. I remove myself from any marketing list I find myself on. The only automated emails I get are 4 great newsletters that I enjoy reading.

Keep with it and keep evolving

To make this work, you have to keep your inbox list up-to-date as new sources of input appear.

Like anything in a Getting Things Done-like workflow, you have to sweep daily to form a strong habit.

If you have questions or feedback about this approach,
that’s the kind of inbox I can’t wait to check.

Let’s hear your suggestions!
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