Productivity Prompter: Get Rid of Your Inbox

It’s an endless battle, reviewing and revising our lives in order to be more productive. There are two ongoing issues with the productivity battle. First, our understanding of productivity often lacks a right definition because it is defined secularly. Second is that what works for one person may not work for another, and yet we often fail to maintain the freedom to adapt based on what works for our individual lives. As I look at all of the productivity ‘systems’ available to us today, there is a misused aspect that is continuously repeated: the inbox.
The inbox, whether physical or digital, is considered to be an essential to and desktop compilation. It is where ‘to-do’s in the form of invoices, messages, filing, and more are placed in order to be processed. Yet, the function of the inbox is beginning to change in this current era in which physical and digital boundaries are becoming mixed and undefined. And so it becomes important to reevaluate our usage and consider its impact upon our productivity.
Before moving forward, there are two purposes that we must consider. The first is a lost purpose within the realm of productivity as a whole. The definition of productivity for many is simply to get the most done in the least amount of time. Yet, productivity can and should encompass so much more. Getting the most things done in the least amount of time reduces every task to nothing more than a checklist of items. Certain items belong within a checklist (order a book, make an appointment); other aspects of our lives do not (being a parent or spouse, building relationships). Instead, productivity, rightly defined, must include an aspect of God and working to His glory. This includes more orientation towards certain points that sometimes will take away from our ability to complete things in a the shortest amount of time, but provide long-term benefits, like discipling a new believer. This also means giving priority to the things of God which can take away from the completion of a checklist. However, sometimes productivity is not quantitative, but must be qualitative.
The is a second purpose to consider here. In addition to the ‘lost’ purpose (of prioritizing God) is the ‘current’ purpose of the inbox. The inbox was meant to serve as a quick way to categorize what needs to get done and thus focuses energy towards those. In an interesting twist, many of the things we champion for the purposes of productivity are actually hurting it.These days I see more inboxes flowing over with months and months of paperwork. The inbox, again whether digital or physical, is no longer about producing productivity, but restricting it. Most people’s inboxes are so filled with things that they not only can’t keep up with it all, but they can’t even get to it in order to prioritize it.
How do we avoid such a disaster. Get rid of the inbox. It’s that simple. For some this may not be feasible, after all one size doesn’t always fit all when it comes to productivity. What does this look like? For myself, here is what I do:
  • Physical Inbox: I have no physical inbox on my desk at least in a manner of speaking. If something needs attention, I do place it in a special spot on my desk. However, usually these items are time sensitive things that require I have something physical in hand in order to complete them (such as a bill that needs to be paid). Therefore, what gets placed in that pile is very limited and will usually be dealt with very soon.
  • Email Inbox: This has become one of the worst offenders for most people. What should make life easier has become a constant reminder of our finite abilities. So how do we tackle such a task? There are some specific aspects that could be addressed, but that’s another article. Our focus here is simply how to manage what we have and to that end, I have two suggestions. If it requires you to do something, don’t use the email as your reminder. Instead, respond alerting the person you received it and that you will get them what they need by the date needed and then move the task to your to do list. For those emails in which you need to respond to, keep a separate file labeled something like “respond’ or something and then move those emails there. Then work your way to the list. Between these two steps you can take care of virtually every email you receive.
  • Digital Inbox: Like the email inbox, there are two simple things. First is to file it away digitally in its appropriate place. The second thing is to determine if it requires an action. If so, add an action item to your to do list.
Each of these aspects keeps something important in mind; a clean desktop helps a person’s productivity. Each of these aspects is meant to maintain a clean desktop (digitally and physically). Even the points in which things are saved, they are meant to be minimal. For example, with a physical inbox we are quick to use it as a catch all when we are unsure where something goes; however by getting rid of that physical space, anything that goes into the physical pile must satisfy some rigorous requirements because I don’t want the desk to become cluttered with bits of paper.
If something is not serving its function it makes logical sense to get rid of it or replace it. The inbox has become a point that does not promote productivity, but hinders it. Therefore, it seems reasonable to get rid of it and replace it with something else. The key for each person is to evaluate its effectiveness.