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These are the inboxes of our lives

After reading a tweet saying that I spend two hours/day emptying my inboxes fairy consistently, I was asked as an aside to list all of the inboxes (i.e., places where attention tokens[1] collect) that I manage in my productivity practice. This was good timing, and I felt a review and analysis were in order. It's been a long time since I wrote My GTD Collection Points - Guided Tour, With Pictures, so I figured, voila!, my next blog post.

Surprises: After doing this inbox review I learned that there are more of them than I thought (13!) While all my collecting points are intentional, there's certainly room to consolidate.

I'm curious

  • What inboxes do you manage?
  • Did you find more than you thought you had?
  • Any special workflows around any of them?
  • Anything you'd like to change in your setup?

I'd love to hear your comments.


These are the places where things requiring my attention arrive. There should be a minimum number of these, with the "big three" being email, voicemail, and paper. Following is an exhaustive list of mine.

  1. Paper Inbox - Desk: This is where I toss all incoming physical artifacts, including mail from my front office mail slot (see here for detail), my portable inbox (see below), paper notebook pages (see below), things I picked up around the house, notes from others, notes to myself while working (so I can stay on task), and my current project notes if I need to take an interruption (it works like a kind of action bookmark). Emptied daily.
  2. Paper Inbox - Portable: When away from my office I carry a folder in my briefcase that I use for collecting any paper I encounter. Things like receipts, meeting notes, and business cards go here. NB: Nothing in it is more than a day old, and everything gets emptied into the inbox on my desk (see above).
  3. Wallet: Continuing the on-the-go category, common "stealth" inboxes clients have include wallets, purses, pockets, and briefcases. Regarding wallets, I use mine for receipt collection. I do this consciously, and empty them daily into my desktop inbox. (Actually, that's not true. I empty them into a special "waiting for bank statement" queue, which is part of my routine financial workflow. See Custom Workflows For Knowledge Workers for examples.)
  4. Voicemail Inboxes: One each for home and work. I "empty" them multiple times per day (usually when taking a break) by writing down each message (who, what, when), noting action required, and putting it into my desktop inbox unless urgent. Note that I'm not doing any of the associated work, I'm just emptying it, two minute rule excepted. I do the same when I'm on the road, capturing cell vmail information in my paper notebook (or returning urgent and two minute calls) for later emptying.
  5. Email Inbox: This is the most challenging inbox to manage. I empty it multiple times per day, though it's an on-going struggle to not "check," i.e., to really process all new messages every time I start the program. ("Monitoring" is conceptually different, where you look for anything urgent. Whether this is required depends on the expectations in your work culture, as well as expectations you've conditioned in others.)
  6. Mail.app Notes: This is an odd one. I'm experimenting with using my phone's Notes app to capture late-night thoughts and actions (rather than notepad and lighted pen). The notes sync with iTunes, which means I have to treat them as an inbox. I've tried multiple To Do iPhone apps, but none appealed or were stable enough. I need to rethink this; I don't need more inboxes!
  7. Email "sent-from-iphone" Folder: Another odd one, this is a side-effect of the way my iPhone-to-Gmail sending works, and is not ideal. I use Google Reader to process feeds while between appointments, and email to myself articles worth reading. However, Gmail apparently notices some circularity and doesn't list these in my inbox. So I've created a filter to find them, but it means I have yet another collecting point to check. Needs rethinking.
  8. Mail Slot - Front Office: As mentioned above, the initial staging area for incoming paper mail is a set of shelves in the front of the office (the front of the house, in my case). This is typical in most workplaces, and simply means that I have to transfer it daily to my desktop inbox. Depending on your position you might have someone do this for you, or even better, do initial processing and filtering before it lands on your desk. Ain't delegation grand?
  9. RSS Feeds: I use my feed reader to collect a number of feeds, all of which I'm committed to emptying, with varying priority. Examples include:

    • Local events,
    • Google alerts (mentions of my name or blog, and of people and companies I want to help, i.e, want to form relationships with),
    • News (mostly related to science, technology, and clients),
    • Blogs (far fewer than in the past - I'm in a convergent mode [2] and have pruned a lot), and
    • Twitter-related feeds (specific people I find to be of high value, including client relationships as mentioned above). I use RSS to track these because I've not found a desktop Twitter app I like. (As an aside: How can you determine value? That's an area our technology lags behind, and I think is a huge opportunity. For more see Information Provenance - The Missing Link Between Attention, RSS Feeds, And Value-based Filtering.)

  10. Twitter - Followees: I use Twitter.com to catch up with people I follow. Generally I scan these periodically, a few times a day, say, but I don't read every one. I save most of my Twitter attention for targeted following, mentions, and posting.
  11. Twitter - Mentions: I also prefer to use Twitter.com to track mentions of my account. These I treat at the same level of priority as my email inbox - direct correspondence with a 24 hour response time. (Related: What's Your Maximum Response Time? and Depressurize Your Email With A 24 Hour Response Time.)
  12. Capture - Portable Notebook: Carried with me at all times, I use spiral-bound notebook that's small, inexpensive, has perforated pages, and holds a pen. You can buy fancy leather-covered ones with cool retractable pens, but I prefer to keep it inexpensive. (Bonus: My daughter gave it to me, so I feel a connection each time I use it.)
  13. Capture - MTB Notebook: My final (whew!) inbox is a separate spiral notebook and pen that I keep in my CamelBak while mountain biking [3] to capture ideas that inevitably occur while grunting and sweating. (No, I don't carry a notebook during that activity!) I don't use the ubiquitous one above because I don't want to risk leaving it in one place or the other. After riding I tear out the sheets and toss them into my desktop inbox.


Reader Comments (15)

My inboxes:

1. desktop inboxes (one each for two offices)
2. portable plastic folder: for loose papers when out of the office
3. Voicemail: I forward work phones to my cellphone almost all the time, so there's just one to empty. I generally delete messages immediately and create a follow-up task: keeping anything in voicemail is the same as forgetting about it for me.
4. Wallet: receipts and note cards
5. Truck: a great realization was that the cab of my truck is a giant collection bucket. I now empty it daily -- including the garbage pouch I love:


and the portable organizer I also love:


6. E-mail inboxes: One business, three personal, emptied daily. Jott is another capture tool, but it forwards to my business inbox and gets processed there. I haven't tracked it recently, but I doubt I get more than 20 e-mails in a day in each inbox.
7. Clipboard: My single most important capture tool. I keep my daily calendar page on the front of the clipboard, and take notes on it throughout the day. At the end of the day or the start of the next it gets processed to zero. I have run million dollar contracting businesses from my clipboard.
8. Laptop bag: my laptop goes with me everywhere. I don't own a smartphone. The bag tends to collect and hold folders that are too big for my clipboard or plastic travelling folder.
9. Post office box: I have two, one each city in which I live, and I empty them once a week directly into my physical inbox. I'm researching Earthclass mail, but will probably have to keep physical post office boxes in any event, although I may use the USPS mail forwarding service so that I don't have to physically check them ever again.

I process my inboxes every morning at 5:30 or 6am. It takes about 1/2 hr unless I've fallen behind. I use a checklist to make sure I don't forget anything. And rule #1 is that my desktop be completely clear by the time I'm done. That means that project folders go into the file cabinet or a portable file box that I keep with me. You mentioned in a post some time ago, Matt, that GTD had trained you to pick up items that were out of place -- on a desktop, say -- and put them away. This has been a huge benefit of GTD for me. Realizing that physical mess creates psychic mess for me was an important step in getting my work-related anxiety under control. The point of processing for me is two-fold: to clear all work surfaces and to bring my Context list up to date: at the end of processing, I print out a fresh Context list, shred the old one, and put it in my clipboard, just behind my daily planner page which is the cover sheet on my clipboard.

For what it's worth, I consider reading and managing RSS Feeds and Twitter-following to be work to be done, not inboxes within which to collect. Reading RSS feeds is recreation for me -- and I only follow one person on Twitter.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

I see two tools that could help you :
- Evernote to replace some inbox : one place to rule them all ;)
- Yahoo Pipe : to handle rss feeds (and twitter flow ?)

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeoffrey

Reading this, especially about the portable inbox for paper collected on the road led to a lightbulb moment for me - oh my goodness my handbag(s)!!!

I recently unearthed one which I hadn't used for nearly a year (I think) and just going through the business cards I'd collected plus receipts (all of which are now binned), paychecks (!!), lists and notes of reminders. And that's just what I can remember. Truly horrifying.

My current regular one (which is quite large) is so full that it makes my shoulders ache just to carry it. When I go through security checks (which I do fairly often, working around govt offices) and they want to search my bag I have to warn them that I could be carrying anything in there and I wouldn't necessarily know about it (that is a joke I hesitate to add!!)

Your post has made me add to my list a memo to list all my Inboxes in the same way as you have - and find some way of processing them all.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Nothing to add except re this:

For what it's worth, I consider reading and managing RSS Feeds and Twitter-following to be work to be done, not inboxes within which to collect. Reading RSS feeds is recreation for me -- and I only follow one person on Twitter.

Interesting. My take was that [slipping into David Allen mode], until I look at it, it's unprocessed stuff that I haven't decided meaning or action for. Therefore, it's an inbox.


July 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Sounds like Dan's OK with his system, though I know people who love Evernote. It is pretty cool, I agree. Anything where I can snap a picture of handwritten notes, which become searchable, is awesome.

I looked once at Pipes, but couldn't get it to do what I wanted. How about a post on it?

Thanks for reading!

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'm happy for your insights - made my day! The old stuff doesn't seem to be a concern - it's too stale to be relevant. I'd be really interested in the *impact* of not handling it, though. If minimal, then no problem; it might be easier to not have a system and simply let it go to hell! I suspect that's not the case.

Emptying your current one: Reduced back pain, smoother security transits? Again, consequences?

Finally, I'd love to hear your inbox audit report. Comment here or feel free to [ email me | http://matthewcornell.org/contact.html ].

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

To me, it's all reading. It can lead you anywhere, just like reading a book. For example, I just spent AN HOUR following links in your Twitter posts. I catch up on this at the same time I read stuff in my RSS feeds. But whether I "empty" this inbox or not, the only consequence is that the amount of stuff I have to read goes up or down.

There's a component of your Tweet activity that looks to me exactly like e-mail, and that part I'd probably also treat like an e-mail inbox. And, presumably, re-Tweeting seems to function as a kind of social network marketing tool, so turning that stuff over in a timely fashion would seem to have value in the same (almost completely unknowable) way that other social network marketing does.

Speaking of links in your Twitter posts, the Bill Romanos link to Nassim Taleb was great -- thanks! Have you read Fooled by Randomness yet? Black Swan? Rich blog post material at the very least, although much of what he writes about has had a profound, lasting effect on my own thinking.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan owen

I thought Geoff's Evernote recommendation was for you, as a substitute for mail.app. I use Evernote as a kind of clipping file, but pay little attention to its contents, as I do my paper clipping file. It's so easily searchable that I trust I can find what I need there when I want to.

July 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

In Boxes? Let me think

In Basket both at home and office, In Folder when I travel, a little In paper notebook for ideas and everything else that comes not printed, email, twitter, rss reader, my phone and my camera to capture instant complex notes when I'm out of the office

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel de Luis

OK, thanks - I missed that, Dan!

I'd certainly like to consolidate incoming. So how would this work with EverNote? It would combing two into one via their iPhone app:

6. Mail.app Notes < - Evernote iPhone app
7. Email "sent-from-iphone" Folder < - "", assuming it has an easy safari connection (ideal), or a email-to-new-note feature

I might play with it.

Question: I tend to differentiate tools based on action and reference. Many of the reference tools like Evernote feel obliged to add action features - MindManager too, I think. For some reason I like them separated. Yes, in a sense they're all just lists (maybe hierarchical), but the tool matters, and examining and checking off action feels different than capturing and finding information. Any thoughts?

Thanks again, guys.

Ref: http://www.evernote.com/about/what_is_en/tour/iphone.php

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Much appreciated.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I think I get it. "To Read" is a type of work backlog, like my backlog of book notes to processes. I agree that something needing reading soon is more of a GTD-style action. Your "it's not about emptying, it's about level" is interesting. What queues exhibit this property? Low-priority ones, I think.

> I just spent AN HOUR following links in your Twitter posts

Clearly you need to watch your influences. I'm a bad one.

> the Bill Romanos link to Nassim Taleb was great

Glad you liked it. It's here: [ BILL ROMANOS BLOG: A conversation about economics with Nassim Taleb author of The Black Swan | http://cislunarspace.blogspot.com/2009/07/conversation-about-economics-with.html ] (Charlie Rose).

> Have you read Fooled by Randomness yet?

No! I thumbed through it in the library, but wasn't drawn into reading it at that time. It's on my wish list.

Great comments, Dan.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I never thought about the distinction between tools of action and tools of reference. To me, Evernote is purely a reference tool: a searchable, virtual file cabinet.

I've noticed, though, that there are two groups of people who have needs that require much more versatile tools than I do. One group is composed of those who work in teams and need to share documents, tasks, calendars and so forth. I've found Basecamp to be a great product for sharing information, but I rarely need to do so. Sharing and working together requires synching, which seems to test software to its absolute limit. (I'd love to find a product that synchs Outlook across computers with the same extraordinary ease that SugarSynch does with all of my other data.)

The second group would like to link together all different data types in one place -- e-mail with text with spreadsheets with video with audio with contact info with web content, and so forth. Pulling everything together like that can bind reference to action in a way that would be helpful to this group. You may fall into that category to some extent, Matt -- a blog post for you involves a lot of data mining and linking. Evernote seems to have potential in this area. OneNote (or Mac's Notebook) seems too also. I think if you're acting on this material, the action options would be valuable. It would be helpful to meet an Evernote Poweruser to learn more about its potential.

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

Hey Matt,
Great article. I've spent time streamlining my whole system. Starting with email; two accounts, one personal, one work. I check the personal account once a day and the work account twice. I triage each entry and either delete, respond, or move to a processing file (or my to-do list).

Voice mail: one for work (cell with office forwarded since I'm seldom there), one for personal. Both transcribed into email and processed during those times. All voice mail for the day is deleted at 8:00pm. I don't even listen to them anymore.

I trashed the Blackberry. To tempting to check it every time it dropped a new message. I went back to a basic cell phone since I quit processing email on the run and wanted one place for all email.

Gave up the twitter thing. Not enough ROI. Time is money so I'm spending my time working close to the money. Spending more time thinking, reading, and experimenting with new systems and processes which for me is a better investment of my time.

Paper In-Box; one at home, one at work, one portable (GTD-Red). When in the office, which isn't often lately, I just grab the contents, and throw them into the red folder. When I get home I dump everything into my paper inbox at home for processing. I process on a routine so I know everything gets done on a twelve-hour cycle. Weekly reviews help me contemplate the week gone by and pan for the upcoming week.

Capture tool; Note pad with tear out pages. Goes with me everywhere. I've moved my entire time management system back to paper. It's faster for me and has greatly increased my productivity. It's a hybrid system I've been experimenting with over the last year. I use my computer for research, writing, processing, and archiving. The paper tools keep me focused and I have my mission, vision, goals, strategies, and daily marching orders at hand all the time.

I've been experimenting with value and how it relates to the time I want to spend engaged in certain activities. I use my mission, vision, and goals as the yardstick. If a given activity does not measure up, it gets canned. I closed my marketing Facebook account for this reason and only use a personal account for friends and family. I've eliminated all technology that does not produce to expectation quickly so as not to waste time. I continually experiment, but hold the given technology to rigorous standards as to ROI. Case in point is 37signals Highrise which has really exploded for me as a revenue producing tool. Since my vision is tied to client business development, this tool has produced way beyond expectation. Since it also ties into my goals and strategies for my business, it meets the standard.

However, there is one item I always make time for, and that's reading Matt's Idea Blog. Continued success and best wishes.


August 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavey

Thanks a ton for the summary, Davey. Good to hear from you.

[voicemail] transcribed into email

What tool do you recommend?

I trashed the Blackberry. To tempting to check it every time it dropped a new message.

The cell is a communication tool; processing and doing real work on it is almost impossible.

Gave up the twitter thing. Not enough ROI.

How'd you measure it? Supposedly its value is in creating relationships, but how do you know when things are going on in the background. Maybe I have my answer... I would love for mine to generate work - I feel I create enough free value already here. Maybe it's time to finally drop it.

Spending more time thinking, reading, and experimenting with new systems and processes which for me is a better investment of my time.

Sounds good. I've sent you an invitation to check out "Edison," our Think, Try, Learn experimenter's workbook. Not sure the ROI though...

I've moved my entire time management system back to paper

Including your calendar? My laptop-based one is so much more productive for me, though paper's affordances are compelling in some ways.

I continually experiment, but hold the given technology to rigorous standards as to ROI

Again, is this straightforward for you to measure? I'm so ignorant of marketing in my consulting that I should know this. However, the time is right - I want to boost my practice. Any tips are welcome!

Highrise which has really exploded for me as a revenue producing tool. Since my vision is tied to client business development, this tool has produced way beyond expectation.

I'd *love* to hear how you use this, Davey.

However, there is one item I always make time for, and that's reading Matt's Idea Blog. Continued success and best wishes.

Sweet! Thanks for reading, and for the great comment.


August 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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