How many 'inboxes' do you have? How do you consolidate them?

I recently realised that I have several other ‘inboxes’ in my life in addition to the classic personal task manager (OmniFocus for me) and e-mail—an inbox defined broadly as any capture point for new actions or information that may be worth one’s attention.

For example (from obvious to debatable):

  • Work task manager and e-mail (Microsoft To Do and Outlook, respectively)
  • A paper notepad that is my tasks inbox when it’s not appropriate to use my iPhone for OF
  • Calendar invitations
  • Other messaging apps (iMessage, WhatsApp)
  • My hospital pager
  • ~/Downloads (or any other folder that is a receptacle for unsorted files)
  • News/media sources (RSS, YouTube, podcasts, read-it-later service)
  • Discussion boards (MPU Talk, Reddit)

EDIT: Additions suggested by others / more ideas:

  • Browser tabs and bookmarks I’ll get to later
  • Notifications on devices
  • Letters, paper documents

How do you remember to reply to messages? I often forget if I’ve seen them and they’re marked as read, but I don’t reply straight away. Maybe that’s just me. But if I’m in the middle of something, I don’t want to reply hurriedly and distractedly. So I manually create OF tasks to reply later. This is tedious, but I’d rather consolidate messages into OF, which also offers powerful sorting, than have to constantly review each messaging app separately—just more inboxes. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there is no way to re-mark an iMessage as unread.

More generally, what is your approach to consolidating inboxes? How many distinct inboxes are you comfortable to maintain? Too many and I find myself cycling through them, worrying about having forgotten one of them. (Obviously not a big deal for new YouTube videos, but more problematic if I’ve forgotten to call back someone who paged me, for example.) At the risk of sounding completely mad, this feels like a kind of meta-inbox situation.

Even if there’s nothing I can do about it—there’s no way for me to make pages appear automatically in Microsoft To Do—I feel that cataloging my inboxes was a helpful exercise.

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Interesting topic.

I have done the same exercise before—even modelled the ideal flow via OmniGraffle.

One sinister inbox you’re missing are browser tabs/window. People have a tendency to open many pages across several different working “moments,” and the result is at best multiple windows filled with open loops associated with something or another.

One workflow I’ve found useful is dumping as many of these inboxes into one as possible. A task manager is fine for this, though I use DEVONthink because I can capture all the “Just in case?” non-actionable resources there, file them away, and know they exist somewhere in case I need them again (which I rarely do, but quelling that instinct is a real battle.)

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I’m about the same, minus the pager. I don’t consolidate anything because there is no consolidation to be had. But I prioritize and ruthlessly toss/close/ignore anything unimportant to work or unimportant personally. As Arthur Balfour said, ‘Nothing matters very much, and very few things matter at all.’

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My basic approach is to have a daily and weekly review tasks in Things. Among the steps in those review tasks are reminders to review my various inboxes and process the items in them. That includes email, iCloud inbox folder (for downloads, email attachments, whatever), and any paper notes.

I tend to deal with some inboxes (calendar invites, messages) when they come to my attention (which may not be immediately when they come in, but are usually not too long thereafter).

I don’t consider RSS or forums (or Twitter, or Micro.blog) to be “inboxes” that need to be cleared out. They are more distractions that I can indulge in when and if I have time, but that can be safely ignored otherwise.

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Absolutely. It’s an important first step in creating the review process recommended by @ciaran.

You need to figure out your own preferences for what you think you’ll just remember to do and what you’ll need to somehow remind yourself to check frequently enough for your own comfort level.

One step in my weekly review is to scan my DevonThink inboxes. If I’m not prompted to check those regularly, they get cluttered and I forget why I’ve saved things.

Text messages is a tough one. Once that red badge disappears, how do you remember to respond? It happens infrequently enough for me that I usually just respond as soon as I get a message. But most messages I get are personal and not critical. If they were more frequent, more disruptive, and more critical to getting my work done every day, I’d have to find a way to quickly get a reminder to reply into OmniFocus and return to what I was doing. I wouldn’t trust my memory there.

Some call it madness. Others call it GTD.

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Consolidating inboxes doesn’t make sense for me. What matters is paying attention, triaging, and zeroing out inboxes.

I have mail inboxes for personal accounts, my corporate Outlook account, and the Outlook account on a client computer that I use. I cull these three inboxes throughout the day, so there never is much there that needs followup later on.

I have an OmniFocus inbox which gets worked in the evening.

On my real-world desktop is an inbox for paper that gets shredded and/or scanned once a month. I probably receive fewer than 10 snail-mail documents that need attention in the course of a year. The rest is stuff that has no priority, so the monthly cleanup is fine. For the few oddballs that still pay things by check, I use my bank’s deposit app as soon as a check shows up, which is very rare.

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Love the discussion @ryanjamurphy @bowline @ciaran @tonycraine @quorm.

Really good catch. I know exactly what you mean. It’s a kind of chaotic darting between multiple threads which rapidly becomes untenable.


Couldn’t agree more. The ‘first-pass’ is a crucial opportunity for filtering. E-mail is ground zero for extraneous content. I haven’t gotten around to filtering mailing list work emails, which are a makeshift—now de facto—notice board with the character of Chinese water torture. It’s diabolical.


Good call. I was casting a wide net for the fun of it. :grin:


Exactly the situation I find myself in. Personal messages, even those that are not critical, are those that we really want to give proper time and attention to (cf. Eisenhower Matrix). It’s about putting effort into relationships, which matters more than almost anything else.


Yup, walking the line between distraction for lack of organisation, and obsessive absorption in the process of organising itself.


It makes so much sense to process once a month (or at whatever interval suits) rather than scan each item as it arrives, due to the start up cost of scanning.


Establishing an effective, sustainable, and even rewarding workflow helps us to turn down the mental process that worries about things not done—the actually important, consequential things. I think it’s worth the effort. And we all just love comparing notes!

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Another benefit of cleaning inboxes and having a clear notes system I have seen is that it seems to encourage the mind to have new ideas. Capturing is not enough; making sure those inputs and thoughts are stored in a place where they are not lost is vital to exercising creativity, whatever field you’re in. Almost as if putting the ideas out and storing them externally made room for new ones in your head :smile:

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I’ve said this before — one of these days I should write a book and become the next rich and famous productivity guru — but it can be really helpful to treat your e-mail inbox as you would a social media or RSS feed, with no generalized obligation to respond or even process. Scan the inbox for items that will either a) bite you in the rear if ignored or b) advance your active projects (you do have an explicit list of those, right?), and dump everything else with status Unread into the archive to deal with if and when you feel like it.

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Another point that tends to get lost is that the inbox of a task manager or, say, a Zettelkasten is not really the same kind of thing as an email inbox or other raw input stream. Items in your task or reference manager inbox (or receipts and bills folders, etc.) should be things you’ve already begun to process, at least to the point of knowing they’re actionable, reference, etc.

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A few things on this:
My inboxes off the top of my head: text messages, emails, Facebook notifications/messages, Snapchat, Instagram messages, eBay messages/sales, Venmo notifications, YNAB imports, internet tabs, Ancestry.com messages.

I’m now working to train myself gradually to not need to instantaneously respond to my inboxes as often or as they appear. I used to be of the belief that I respond immediately to text messages and emails. It’s not perfect but I’m realizing if I’m busy and doing things then I’m not as urgent in responding immediately. If I’m sitting in my apartment watching tv with my roommate I find I’m more likely to respond quickly.

Internet tabs are an issue for me, I often have 20+ open at one time. I think something I’m going to try and work on is clipping them into DevonThink and organizing them by category or project to process them more effectively.

I don’t really think of things as being a unified inbox, I just don’t think that’s possible or feasible.

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Sounds like you are off to a great start. The last company I worked for was so old school they used email for everything. I would frequently get notified by email of a meeting starting in 15 minutes. My job required me to be away from my office frequently so I missed a lot of meetings. Eventually, I gave up trying to get people to reduce their use of email. I sent out a memo explaining that I only opened my email every two hours and only allowed IM notifications. Email is a productivity killer. Even receiving an email notification wastes a lot of time.

If possible, reduce the number of Inboxes you try to manage. IMO, almost anything not related to family or income should be the first moved to the bottom of the list. I realize everyone cannot do this. But if you can, you are likely to both increase your productivity and reduce your stress.

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Internet tabs are an issue for me, I often have 20+ open at one time. I think something I’m going to try and work on is clipping them into DevonThink and organizing them by category or project to process them more effectively.

Do this! It really helps.

I’m trying to keep my unread emails down to just two digits. :slight_smile: And also trying to limit the amount of time spent on social media.

So, as I realised this morning, I’m trying to minimize my unread emails while maximizing my unread tweets…

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As Boring as it May be, at the end of each month i put all my emails in the folder - and emails that are urgent or need attention i flag, I also archive all my emails via email archiver pro - so it saves them as individual PDF files for each email and attachments in a folder named the same, this is then uploaded to evernote, with an appropriate tab. Its now at 24,560 emails each one I can find any deatil i need back to July 2000 - Works for me

Nice! Though I think I’d trust an IMAP email server much more than I’d trust Evernote, for long-term archiving…

https://statusq.org/archives/2020/05/16/9538/

Q

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Its the vast array of search capability’s on Evernote i use via the OCR that keeps me their - and even though i have a generous email capacity it wouldn’t be enough to keep 10 years emails and attachments alas…

I archive all my emails as well but I use DEVONThink and I do not use IMAP servers so mine are pretty much all POP mail.

Try archiving over 30 years of email.

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My Inbox List
E-mail
Main Inbox
DXR messages
Order Info
Ads and Newsletters
Author Info
Paper
Main Inbox for all mail etc.
3 x 5 paper notebook in my belt pouch
3 x 5 paper notebooks scattered around the house - I tear off the notes and put them in either my pocket or my belt pouch
All paper notes get either processed out of the notepad or I toss them into the paper inbox and process later.
Calendar - daily I do not get invitations via calendar they all come via email
Text Messages - usually answered immediately
I’ve trained the people I correspond with not to use this unless it’s pretty urgent
Voicemail - once a day
Omnifocus
Main Inbox - Only gets things from Siri reminders and I clear it out as soon as I come in because Siri is so bad at recognizing my speech.
Devon Think - Cleaned weekly or more often
Global Inbox
Inboxes for each Database
Safari
Bookmark Inbox - I clear this out about every 3 months
General Forums - Most visited daily
GTD Connect
Mac Power Users
Welsh Mountain Sheep Forum
Sheep Production Forum - once a month or so
Slack - As I get notifications
LambTracker Slack
Mastermind Slack
Twitter - I use TweetDeck to manage my Twitter feed
Timeline - sorted by users and groups in TweetDeck
Private Messages
Ravelry
Private Messages
Ravelry Forums
Facebook
Private Messages - (Come in as email notifications I answer to send me regular email)
Podcasts - only as time permits so usually I binge listen about every 6 weeks
Focused
MPU
System
General Scanning - cleared out monthly
Downloads - cleared out quarterly (trying to get it to cleaned out weekly but it’s hard to do)
Oogie Pictures for the Year - Where my pictures sync to prior to processing in LightRoom and moving onto the server cleared out monthly

I don’t try to consolidate them but I do empty them out on a regular basis. It’s dependent on the particular inbox what that schedule is.

On browser tabs. I often have a bunch of them open usually when I am working on a specific thing and have been cross referencing stuff. But I close them out at the end of the day back to the single one that is our weather station. In the morning I look at weather and news which are groups of tabs I open up with one selection and read the stories I am interested in right then. Then I close them out. I don’t look at news after that unless I am forced to. I do clip links to my Safari Inbox if I think they will be useful later as described above.

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I remember the feeling. It can be frustrating when you forget to reply. What solved this for me was processing my messages every day twice a day and assigning a priority to them. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. What I do is that I check all my Email/Texts and reply to the ones that would take 2 mins or less RIGHT AWAY. The ones that need a more thoughtful response I add to my task manager (Things) + assign a priority to it.

I use the Eisenhower Matrix for prioritizing my tasks and it works really well. I got the idea of using Emojis for priorities from Chris Heisel.

Things can be Urgent + Important (:fire:) , Important + Not Urgent (:zap:) or Not Important + Urgent (:baseball:). Things that are not important, nor urgent don’t get a tag and just move to the bottom of the list. I really like the idea of a baseball for the “Not important + Urgent” stuff since it usually comes “out of left field”. Things like, “Order carpet cleaner” or “Check we have eggs before ordering groceries tomorrow”. I have veeeery few :baseball:any given day.

After each processing session some emails will be tagged with :fire:. I aim to tackle those sometime today. That doesn’t mean that I wait to send them out when I process my email for the 2nd time that day (usually 4pm), it just means that I send them out that day. Doesn’t matter if it is 1:23pm or 8:50pm. Priority :fire:means I must address this Today.

Hope this helps!