Going Through My Inbox

I’m going through my physical inbox right now. There aren’t too many things in it today, so this might serve as a quick example of some principles and approaches I recommend using.

This post will be a somewhat less structured. I’m just going to write down what I actually do in real-time. (Looking back now, this post feels a bit too first-person; but I hope that this inside-look might prove helpful in illustrating the principles and practices for processing an inbox.)

As is GTD standard practice, I go through the items one by one. But first I take them all out of the actual inbox and set them right next to me, just to my left. My inbox, by the way, is just a bit further back on my left side (I’ll touch on this when I blog on how to organize your desk: the left side of your desk is “in,” the middle and immediate right is “working,” and the far right is “out”).

First, there is an external hard drive. I brought this from home. So actually, let me back up. A lot of times in the evening, I have stuff I need to bring to work the next day (no news there). When I get to work, that stuff goes right in my inbox to get processed.

The external hard drive was one such example. Every three months, I do an off-site backup of my computer. I keep an ongoing backup (using Mac’s Time Machine program) on an external drive right next to my computer at home, and then every three months back up to a different hard drive that I take away from my house, just to be ultra-prepared not to lose any data in the event of a fire, etc.

So I have this external hard drive before me now. I have a spot for it here at work, and put it away right there.

Second, I have three new books. Two were Christmas gifts and one I ordered. I need to add those to my “To Read” list. This is a less-than-two-minute action, but I don’t want to literally do it right away. I find it most efficient to actually group my small actions into piles that I then execute right after processing my inbox. This saves time — there is less gear shifting. All three of these books can be entered at once, all filing can be done at once, and so forth. So I set them in a pile on my right side that I mentally designate as “to enter.”

Third, I have an ergonomics article to read. I’m going to read this right away, so I put it in a second pile right next to the books to enter, on my right side. This is my “to read” pile for right after I’m done with my inbox.

Fourth, I have a financial report. No action needed, just needs to be filed. I create a third pile for “to file” stuff, which will get added to if needed so I can do all my filing together.

Fifth, I have a newsletter. I review it to gather any relevant information, and then throw it away.

Sixth, I have what looks like a Christmas card. I open it. I’m getting into ultra-detail here, but to open it I open up my pen/pencil drawer to get out my letter opener. The card is from a friend, so I put it in my briefcase to take home and put with our other Christmas cards. (Just as stuff I bring to work goes into my inbox when I get here, throughout the day there is also some stuff that goes into my briefcase to take home, which I then put in my inbox at home, or else deal with right away.)

Seventh, I have some extra ink for my printer here that I brought from home. I have a drawer for extra supplies like this, and it goes in there.

Eighth, I have the manual for my printer. Actually, there are about 5 documents here. One is in another language, so I throw it away. Two more are ads, so I throw them away. I put the remaining two relevant parts of the manual into my “to file” pile.

Ninth, there are a few other books I brought today to refer to as I do one of my projects. I put those on my right side, in the back, so they are easy to access when I get to that project. Note: I would not keep those books there long-term, as this is how desks end up getting messy. They are there for today. If I have to put the project on hold for a week for some reason, those books will go back on the shelf or up in a bin that I have here for “project support material” that is too big to fit in a file.

Last, I have an adapter for my laptop that lets me plug into a projector with an older type of port. Need to think about this a bit. I already have one of these in my briefcase so that I’m always ready for this (learned the hard way). So I don’t think I need this. I think I’ll give it to our IT department, so I’ll put that in the last pile on my right side, “out.”

Now I have my inbox processed. There remain four piles of less-than-two-minute actions to my right now, and I don’t consider myself technically done until I handle those actions. The piles are: to enter, to read, to file, and out. I’m glad to have those small actions grouped. Now I’ll take care of those and move on to the next thing.

Total time? This level of items would probably have normally been about 5 minutes or less. Maybe a bit more. Took a little longer this time because of writing this post at the same time.

  • John

    As I’m just starting GTD it is helpful to have a real world application in this post. Allen gives lots of great illustrations in his book, but this is more tangible. I think it’s because you have taken GTD principles and plugged them in directly to your purposes. And then reading this sparks some ideas for my own system. Thanks for the post.