Why You Should Have a Physical Inbox

I once heard David Allen say, “Sometimes people tell me that they don’t have a physical inbox. To which my response is: ‘Yes you do — that just means your whole house is your inbox.'”

It might be tempting these days to conclude that you don’t need to have any physical-based processing tools, since so much comes through digital channels. But inboxes are not just for email.

In spite of all the digital input we receive, there is still a steady stream of real physical input that also comes our way. For example, there is the regular mail, things your kids bring home from school, notes you jot down to yourself when it isn’t convenient to enter them into your electronic system right away, and so forth.

So it is a fact of reality that we have a bunch of incoming physical “stuff” that can be just as constant (although perhaps less in volume) as electronic input. This stuff, therefore, needs to be gathered and collected into a single spot — that is, an inbox — on a regular basis. If you don’t do this, it’s not as though you will be able to brag that you “don’t have a physical inbox.” Instead, what will happen is that your whole desk, your whole office, your whole house will become your inbox.

And the problem with that is this: It makes it hard to distinguish what is unprocessed from what is already where it should be. The result is that you will never have a sense of closure about what needs to be dealt with and what doesn’t, and things can easily fall through the cracks. You will start to drown in a sea of unprocessed stuff.

You need to gather all open loops into one spot, rather than letting them hang around all over. Which is the definition of an inbox.

Here’s an easy example of what this looks like in practice: When you get the mail, don’t just toss it on a counter somewhere, or your desk somewhere, to deal with “when you get to it.” Have an inbox, and put it in there.

Here’s a more advanced example: The other day we finally got a new digital camera (our old one broke after 5 excellent years of service). When I got home with all the packages (the actual camera, plus memory, camera bag etc.) but couldn’t deal with them right away, I didn’t just set them down somewhere to deal with when I get the chance. Rather, I put them into my inbox, then hung out with my kids.

Here’s one more example: Let’s say I need a new hammer, and my wife buys me one when she’s at the store. When she gets home, she doesn’t just put it on some shelf in the garage, trusting me to “notice” at some point that there is something new and out of place in there. Instead, she puts it in my inbox. That way I don’t need to notice or remember that there’s a new hammer out there in the garage that I need to put away at some point. Instead, I can just process it right along with everything else when doing my inbox.

It would be easy to say, “well, just setting a few camera boxes or a hammer down anywhere is no big deal.” Well, right. But if you do that every time, pretty soon you end up with a house (or desk) littered with “stuff to figure out what to do with.” Be diligent. Put stuff in your inbox and it won’t build up all over your desk (or house). The lack of an inbox — or an understanding of how to use them — is the single biggest reason desks get messy and rooms (like offices, garages, and so forth) get disorganized.

So now we’ve talked about why you should have a physical inbox. For details on how to process your inbox, see these posts:

  1. How to Get the Mail
  2. Going Through My Inbox

Last of all, here’s a useful point worth emphasizing: As you can see from the examples above, your inbox is not just something for other people to put stuff in. I put far more things in my own inbox than anyone else, which is as it should be.