How I live: Making the inbox an actual “In” box

This post is part of a larger attempt to share my personal “systems” that help me organize my life. By sharing my system, I hope to get feedback and inspire others to share as well.

Why should I care about this anyway?

You forget your aunt’s birthday every year. You never actually remember to get the milk. You always forget to follow up on that article your friend sent you on Facebook. You’re never finishing your long term projects, and you’re constantly delaying going to that cool new restaurant down the block. You’re now the inconsiderate person who never follows up, never remembers things, and fails to accomplish personal goals.

Having a simple, clear, effective system for accomplishing goals in life, regardless of what they may be, is one of the most fundamental aspects of my life. Yes, it takes some time to set things up the right way, but once I did it, my return on investment was absolutely worth it.

Email: the center of all tasks

I’ve applied a few following rules to my email inbox, inspired by the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy.

Rule 1: If you get an incoming task and it can be done right now, within five minutes, do it now.

Rule 2: If you have an incoming task that takes longer than five minutes, take one key service (in my case, this is my email account) and make it the single place to record all your incoming tasks (this is the “In” box).

All of my tasks go through my Inbox account — keeping all my tasks flowing through one reliable application.

Rule 3: Make time to go through your tasks periodically, then triage and filter them.

When I say triaging and filter your email, I’m basically saying to do what a post office does with mail — take all the incoming mail, prioritize, and move it to the according “out” boxes — whether it be sending mail to the labeled address, returning unlabeled mail, or throwing out damaged mail as trash. One key aspect to task management is that *every* task has a proper destination, even if it’s putting the task in a “I don’t know what to do with this right now” folder.

This system allows you to stop worrying about which tasks to write down, gives yourself the appropriate time to complete tasks, and ensures that no task slips past your radar.

The “In” box

Most of us forget that our email homepage is called an “Inbox” because it’s an adaptation of the traditional paper “In” boxes, as shown below.

To follow the Getting Things Done philosophy, this is what you want your email to become — a tool that captures every incoming task, and then it’s up to you to sort and triage the incoming tasks into the appropriate “Out” boxes.

So, what do I do? I use the aptly named Inbox by Gmail. In my email, there are two types of content.

Emails. I receive tens of emails a day, from friends, subscriptions, or ongoing tasks (e.g. filling out an application). I treat each email as a task item, that has a proper place or destination. Oftentimes, the task is to respond to the email.

In the Inbox app, click the blue “Reminder” button to set a new task.

Tasks. Whenever I get an incoming task (e.g. “Hey Stephen can you send me that finance article you mentioned?”), I’ll open Inbox and set a Reminder with the task. So in this particular case, I’d jot down “Send Chris the finance article I mentioned to him.”

Don’t use Inbox? If you’d rather stick with a different email client, you can still record tasks in your email by sending yourself emails with tasks.

After doing this, I receive a steady stream of tasks and emails each day. The next step is triaging — figuring out where these tasks and emails should go. I do all my triaging when have at least thirty minutes of time to focus on my task management. But next: understanding how to process these tasks and which “Out” boxes to put them in.

My favorite “Out” box: Snoozing

Before we go on to the various other “Out” boxes I use, I need to gush about my favorite feature of any to-do list application: snoozing. Snoozing tasks moves them out of your inbox for the time being, so that they reappear at a selected time. There are a few ways in which I use snooze:

Snoozing a time-based task

  • Task: Get a friend’s birthday gift. Snooze until two weeks before their birthday.
  • Task: Cancel free month trial of Hulu. Snooze until a week before the subscription expires.
  • Task: Buy flight tickets for my summer vacation. Snooze to a month where I’m likely to get cheaper flight deals.

Snoozing a task that needs some additional information

  • Task: I need to buy a new car, but I want to talk to some of my friends about it first. Snooze to a week later, so I can have some time to talk to friends about it first.
  • Task: Pick a new profile picture. Snooze a couple weeks later, until after people upload photos from a recent event.

Snoozing recurring reminders

  • Task: Email my friends semi-annually with life updates. Snooze semi-annually.
  • Task: Write a blog post every week. Snooze weekly.

Snoozing a sent email that needs a response

  • Task: I’ve sent an email to a friend, and I need a response in the next two days to complete a related task. Snooze the email for two days later.

Note: this is one of my favorite Inbox hacks. You’ll need to go to your Sent folder to find the email, and you can snooze from there. If you do this regularly, you can always remind your recipients to email you back if they’ve forgotten to respond to your email.

What do I do with other, non-snooze-able tasks?

Other than snoozing my tasks, I often filter them into other applications, such as Google Sheets or Trello.

Other than snoozing, there are a variety of places my tasks end up getting filtered. I’ve outlined a few key examples below, but ultimately my “Out” box organization works for me personally, and is something that requires a bit of individual customization.

Remembering the milk

If I know I’m going to the grocery at some point, I’ll snooze an Inbox Reminder until then. Otherwise, I’ll add a slot in my Google Calendar to visit the grocery.

Getting an article recommendation

I’ll save the link of the article in my Inbox reminder. I usually will gloss over links until I get back to my desktop, where I’ll read the article. If it’s very long, I may add it to my “Read Later” Inbox Bundle. Otherwise, most of my articles come in via my RSS Reader.

Getting a book recommendation

In the reminder, I’ll save the title of the book and who recommended it to me. Then I’ll filter the title to my spreadsheet of books to read, which I wrote about in more detail in my “how I read” Medium article.

Long term project

I’ll jot down a couple notes about the project I want to complete. If I like it, I’ll flesh it out a bit more in a Google Doc, and make a note of it in my Trello Board, which I use to organize longer term projects.

Pay Bills

I have a recurring reminder at the end of the month to message my roommates, collect rent and internet expenses, and pay off the bills. If I’m missing a payment, I’ll jot it down and snooze it a week later, so that I can remind my roommate. More about my financial system here.

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