It is difficult to walk around storing everything in your head hoping it will work out. In reality, it won’t. You’ll end up losing things, you’ll feel more frustrated, and, at some point, you will simply stop caring.

Your best ideas come when you least expect. If you don’t have a way to capture those ideas so you can decide later what to do with them, then you risk losing those ideas forever, and that would be a shame.

An inbox is where “stuff” goes that you haven’t made a decision about. Any item that goes here is stuff you don’t want to think about right now but that could be potentially meaningful later on. It’s essentially a holding area for those inputs until you decide what to do with them later.

Today, we have inboxes we don’t even know about. We may use them every day, but we’re not very aware of it. Chances are you have more than one inbox in your life. Voicemails, emails, texts, postal mail, any place that is a holding area for any communiqué from your friends, family, clients, or whoever.

There are a couple of reasons why you want an inbox:

  • Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. The problem is we tend to use our mind for storing ideas rather than generating them. We need a place to capture the ideas from our mind in a trusted system that we can review or process later.

  • If you don’t have an inbox, your entire life becomes an inbox, and that’s certainly no way to live. That would be living reactively as opposed to living proactively — doing things when they show up as opposed to when they blow up. Not having an inbox also vastly undermines our ability to stay present, focused, and in the moment.

Having an inbox is the first step toward using and maintaining a trusted system.

Now that I’ve talked about what an inbox is and why you need it, how do you go about setting them up? First, you need to figure out how many inboxes you want. The answer to this question is: as many as you need and as few you can get by with. Remember, you are going to process them frequently (more on this below), so having the right number of inboxes is key. That will make the difference between processing them regularly and not processing them at all.

Once you decide on the number of inboxes, take some time to set them up. Think about when you’re going to process them. You could, for example, block some time in your calendar every day to do this processing.

Typical inboxes include:

  • email
  • phone: unprocessed calls/texts, voicemails
  • postal mail
  • list manager on your computer and/or phone, tablet
  • physical inbox tray at home/work
  • physical inbox folder for when you commute/travel
  • Downloads folder on your computer (more on this below)
  • Facebook messages
  • LinkedIn messages
  • Twitter DMs

Once you have thought through what kinds of inboxes you need and how often to check them, let’s take a look at some example workflows for using and processing these inboxes.

This is a two-step process: capturing and then processing; this is part of the Think in Think, Review, Do. You’re thinking about your work.

A typical workflow looks like this: You’re doing something. You’re reminded of something. Let’s say you want to call a colleague about a report. You quickly capture it in your list manager (inbox) and then get back to whatever you were doing in that moment. Later, when you’re defining work, you process your inbox. Processing means that you’re looking at each item, one at a time, and asking yourself what it means and what you want to do with it. Try not to take more than a couple of minutes to make a decision on each item that you’ve captured in your inbox. I wrote more about this process in Trusted System.

How do you know something is worth capturing? Ask yourself if it’s something that might be potentially meaningful later. If the answer is yes, capture it in the appropriate inbox. When in doubt, capture the item in your inbox. You can always discard it later if it’s not meaningful to you.

Here are some best practices for using inboxes:

  • Processing your inboxes regularly is key. Otherwise, it becomes a bottomless pit of unprocessed actions. Plus, you feel guilty every time you put something in it because you know you should be clearing it out. And then, before you know it, things end up remaining there and blow up in your face instead of facing them when you’ve decided.

  • Set up a dedicated place and time to process your inboxes where you decide what to do with them. You could set up the last hour of your work day to do this. I wrote more about this process in Admin Work.

  • I use the list manager in my phone to capture items in my Inbox. Later, when I get back to my workstation, I process them.

  • I have a Downloads folder on my computer that serves as an inbox. Anything that I download to my computer, regardless of application source, lands in the Downloads folder. Of course, I’ve set up my browsers to do this. I process it weekly.

  • For each day that I’m traveling, it takes me about 30 minutes to process the items in my inbox after I get back. Typically, I try to get back from travel during a weekend so I’ll have enough time to process items from travel, while still leaving sufficient time for next week’s planning.

  • I tend to use my Reading List as a mix between an Inbox and a Next list. For instance, when I come across an article on the web that I want to read later, I add it to my Read Later list. In the moment, I’ve added the article to the list because it’s somewhat interesting. I’m not sure if I want to read it, but I want to consider it later. Instead of making that decision instantly, I want to quickly get back to whatever I was working on without having to worry about losing the idea or flow. In that instance, I’m using my Reading List as an inbox. Then, when I have some discretionary time, I could start reading the article and decide if it’s something I want to keep reading or remove instantly from the list. Ditto with other media lists such as books, films, music, etc.

Today we have inboxes we aren’t completely aware of. Unless we have the appropriate inboxes in place to capture (and process) stuff, everything in our life becomes an inbox. This only undermines our ability to do work, thereby affecting our ability to stay on top of change in an ever-changing world.

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