If you’ve tried it, you probably know that Inbox Zero is a game-changer. Although it can be difficult to stick to and achieve regularly, it is hard to overstate how much peace of mind you get from regularly clearing your email inbox and having noted down the key to-do items. Of course, your inbox fills up again soon enough, but each new influx is more manageable because you start with a clean slate.
Inbox Zero is a well known “Getting Things Done” type strategy and works by processing all email in your inbox at certain times during the day (ideally only a few times, but that’s not essential). Then, for each email doing one of three things:
- For things you need don’t need to act on at all: delete or archive it. (*1)
- For things you do need to act on but which are quick and easy (under 2 minutes is a good rule of thumb): respond to the email or take the action required, then delete/archive the email.
- For things you do need to act on but will take longer two minutes: move the email into a task list/task manager to be dealt with later and out of your inbox.
For task management, I use the Things App on Mac but there are many excellent alternatives like Todoist, Microsoft To Do (previously Wunderlist), RememberTheMilk and many others, as well as simple task management in many email clients.
By going through this process, you are really triaging your incoming requests upfront to avoid being swamped by them. The fact that something is now a task means it is noted (safe from being forgotten!) and you can prioritize it against other things. Phew. This is a HUGE win.
The reason this is so powerful is that it stops you from spending all your time being driven by what lands in your email inbox. Things landing there may be important, but very often they are only medium or low priority or even outright spam. Worse, each time you see these emails, they eat a little of your sanity as you decide over and over again if now is the time to respond. This overload gets even worse if some of the emails relate to complex, gnarly tasks that you are not keen to engage with right now. Your inbox becomes the stuff of nightmares.
While you may not get to zero emails remaining in the inbox each day, reaching that target once in a while means you have a totally different relationship to email: email is a communications service, not a task manager driving your life. Even more importantly when you want to check what to do next, you can look at your task list and avoid the inevitable distraction of the email inbox.
I started using an inbox zero workflow almost 10 years ago and have stuck with it ever since. It would be hard to imagine handling email in any other way given the genuine productivity and peace of mind that it brings!
Even if your inbox currently has hundreds or thousands of emails in it, it’s worth really chewing through and archiving older emails in a big sweep to clear the decks and try this. If you get hundreds of emails a day then it’s also worth setting up filters to try to remove those which are of low relevance (more on that in another post someday).
The Bad News
Inbox Zero is really valuable in that it clears the decks and reduces the distraction factor of a constant stream of new messages.
However, it creates an obvious downstream challenge:
Those tasks all end up somewhere -> on your task list!
So now tasks accumulate in your tasks manager, on paper lists and all over the place. Now instead of an out of control inbox, we have an out of control task list!
Dealing with tasks you’ve decided have some importance is still much better than dealing with emails, but as a compulsive list keeper, the lists often become overwhelming. Declaring task list bankruptcy and starting again from scratch is sorely tempting after some time!
Most to-do list applications provide a battery of features such as tags, projects, scheduling/due-dates and even priorities to help organize the lists of todos. These are helpful, but at the end of the day, it can still often be hard to figure what to do amongst the large number of “live” tasks.
Things (and most task managers) have a structure similar to the below: a “task inbox” for new tasks that have recently been created, a “Today” view which is what’s due to be worked on today. There is also a schedule for tasks that have a due date and a number of tag/project views for tasks which have been classified in certain ways.
Managing to-dos hence becomes a game of shifting things out of the inbox (yep – the other inbox!) either to “today”, into one of the folders or scheduling it for a future date. The net outcome for me was generally, apart from the few things which had fixed due dates, important things would end up in the “today” list and less important things in folders to be done “someday”. This system hence creates three types of to-dos:
- Things that have been scheduled for a specific date because they have a specific deadline.
- Things that are important and need to be done “soon” that live in the Task Inbox or the Today view.
- Things that I want to do at some point but isn’t urgent, that go into folders or projects without a due date.
This worked for me for many years, but it’s clear to see that it replicates some of the problems of the email inbox at the task level. In this case, the equivalent of the email inbox is a combination of the Task Manager Inbox and the Task Manager Today view of the application. In other words, all the things which are relevant “now” in some way. I call this the “task box” as a convenient shorthand.
The number of important/proximate tasks builds up and grows longer by the day. It starts to get difficult to see which are the most important.
Worse, the number of tasks in the “sometime” folders and projects also builds up into long lists of things which “ought” to be done sometime. Some of these may get promoted into the inbox/today views sometimes, but it’s rare that there is enough mental space to look at what’s there and decide to do it.
The biggest problem with this approach is that the task inbox and today view become their own vehicles for procrastination. Just like the email inbox, it contains things that are of varying levels of importance and urgency.
The task lists often contain a spectrum of things from “Change the world” to “It’s Thursday, refill the coffee machine”. With big scary tasks like changing the world brooding on the task list, it’s very easy to decide to knock off some of the smaller tasks before thinking about the larger one. This is a form of structured procrastination and why you are likely to have a functioning coffee machine, even if the world isn’t being saved right now. (Though one could argue fresh coffee is always a good step along the way!)
We have essentially replaced our email-driven work-life with as task box driven one, but we’re still overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of things we have “top of mind” at the same time.
The Zen of Task Box Zero
The epiphany came after a long day staring at multiple paper and electronic task lists from multiple projects, knocking off some tasks but feeling like little productive had really been done.
Our task-boxes are essentially the same as inboxes (and with many of the same problems) but there is one key difference: you control everything that ends up there. Whereas anyone can send you an email, only you can add a task to your task list, schedule it, delete it etc. (*1)
So the realization was simple and obvious in retrospect: If task lists function like email inboxes that only you control, then surely wouldn’t it be even easier to apply Inbox Zero type principles to your task list than your email Inbox?
Why struggle under the same kind of mental task overload when it’s all under your control AND you know you logically only have a certain amount of work capacity each day?
This kicked off experiment mode!
The new rules of task management
As a result of this thinking, I continued my Inbox Zero practices as before but applied the same zeroing logic to the combination of the task inbox and the today view of the task manager (which I called the task box above). These are the items that essentially mean “now” on your task list on one form or another.
The Task Box Zero rules are simple. At regular intervals review the task inbox and today view (and in many cases, the task inbox can be skipped entirely: see below). For every task:
- If it’s something you no longer need to do in any timeframe: delete or archive it.
- If it’s something you still need to do soon, but will not get done today: hit the schedule button and assign it to a future day that feels right (yes, kick the can down the road) to remove it from the inbox or today view.
- If it’s something you do still intend to do, then put it into the today view and work on it in priority order with what’s already there.
By doing this, your task inbox will always be emptied out and items that have no hope of being done today are pushed to the schedule for the future. Doing this leaves you with a clear inbox and a (hopefully small) number of things which are in your today view.
The key point is that the things in the today view are by definition only those that you’ve decided to try to complete today. In other words, they are the focus for right now. You may still have to prioritize amongst them for urgency and importance since it’s easy to overestimate your capacity and emergencies can obviously take you off track, but the scope is fundamentally bounded.
Reaching the end of the day
As the end of the day approaches interesting things happen. What mostly happens is that you run out of time and all of the tasks aren’t complete, neither can they be completed. Damn, that sounds like failure. All it means though is that you’ve run out of work hours right now and now at least your task manager is telling you what is still incomplete that previously seemed like it needed to be done today. At the end of the working day you can take those remaining tasks and apply the same set of rules again:
- Is it still necessary? If not, delete the task.
- If it is still necessary, open the scheduler and drop the task either to tomorrow or another future day which makes sense.
In other words, you can proactively select where those items will go in the future. Often, some of the tasks will be deleted since they are no longer relevant (maybe that special offer you half wanted to check out expired today anyway or you aimed to make it to a particular meeting at 4 pm but couldn’t make it: both of those things are gone forever). Other tasks that are still relevant can be reprioritized based on what you expect to be coming tomorrow.
This way, by default, you always clear your metaphorical desk ready for the next day. What’s even better is that you have been able to prioritize only amongst a small number of items on the today view all day.
This is technically Task Box zero, though it may not feel like a great victory since some things still did not get done. That great victory comes later…
Starting the day
The next workday will inevitably bring more email and other tasks. It may also bring a number of those previously scheduled tasks into your today view. These could be items deferred from the previous day or things that were pushed into the future at some point in the past. Either way, your Task Inbox and Today view may well have additional things in it. This is the trigger to carry out the triage steps from the previous section again. From whatever is in the Task Inbox and Today views, determine if it can be deleted and if it’s feasible/necessary today.
This seems like we’ve just kicked cans down the road right? However, something magical happens when you do this exercise. Often:
- Some have become irrelevant/outdated, so they can just be deleted/archived.
- Some are still relevant but it still does not make sense to do them that day (maybe more information is needed or a deadline moved).
- The relative priorities of the tasks are such that it’s obvious 1 or 2 of them must be done today above the others, even if those other tasks suffer. It is much clearer what’s primary and what is secondary.
The magical effect is that it enables you to pick out the most important things to be done during the day and slide in only those other tasks which look feasible. Some others may end up being deleted or pushed to another day. While this may look like procrastination, it’s really just aggressively prioritizing the important things.
Over time you get better at knowing which tasks to focus on each day and you’re always working with that subset.
True Task Box Zero!
Applying this process is a very powerful way to remove the distraction of many of the “should do” items from your screen. It also allows you to clean your desk each day. However, there is one truly magical moment that happens once in a while that tells you that you’ve really achieved a breakthrough:
Yes, that moment when you complete all the items you’d planned on before the end of your working day and you’re staring at an empty task list. The first reaction you might have is the one I had:
Ok, this must be some kind of mistake...
Yep, it can’t be the case that you have nothing else to do right? Not before time, that would be impossible!
In one sense it is true that there is still more that could be done (we’ll get to that) but in another sense, this isn’t a mistake at all: it means very specifically that the things you’d prioritized for the day are done. That’s a great victory.
When this first happened to me I stared at the screen for a while. It should be easy to deal with but it’s not. I then checked the schedule for tomorrow + some tasks on the “any time” list to see if there was anything important … no, not really.
I checked my email inbox and eliminated a few things there.
Quickly though I was back to the empty screen.
I can’t remember if I did no more work that day or if I pulled forward some things from less urgent lists and did those, but as a minimum, I walked away from my desk and stretched my legs for a while!
What to do at Task Box Zero
The first time this happens, it may feel weird! But go ahead and celebrate, it means you have at least some handle on important and urgent things. Have a drink, go for a walk, call a friend etc.
The irony is there have probably been many days in the past when the important things in the day did get done, but we didn’t recognize it. It gets lost because when the important things are on a long list of things that could be done and so even if we had a great productive day, there is still a pile of other stuff staring us in the face.
In the long run, if reaching Task Box Zero happens more frequently (which hopefully it will) there are a lot of good choices for what to do when you get there each time:
- Finish early: you’ve very likely earned it. It really does mean your priority items are complete and there is life to be living so this is definitely a great choice!
- Pull forward some tasks: you can pull some urgent tasks from upcoming days into today and get them done early (this feels great too).
- Look at tomorrow and the week’s other tasks and prioritize: triage them to bubble up the most important things to work on over the coming days, this may allow you to delete some and do some research for some that look tricky.
- Set the table for tomorrow: if you don’t have the energy for any of the above, then one last productive thing you can do is already identify those things which you think are most important on the next working day. Just by putting them at the top of the schedule will mean they are top of mind for you to noodle on as you go about life in between. (Paul Graham calls this top of mind.)
You may also be thinking that getting to Task Box Zero may mean you’re simply not prioritizing enough things per day. Is this just laziness or poor planning?
It may be true that not enough went on the list for a particular day, however, you’ll likely get better at estimating what’s possible as you go. On many days, emergencies, things taking longer than planned etc. will mean not everything will get done. Equally on some though some tasks may evaporate (great, someone already picked up lunch on their way into the office etc.).
The key thing is you are only dealing with what you think is in scope and are safe in the knowledge that other things are still being tracked. These other tasks just aren’t on screen distracting you all day.
Adding a step at the end of the day to look at the next workday and prioritizing is a powerful additional hack. Not only does it focus your attention on the big things to work on, it gives you peace of mind about knowing what’s coming up and a feeling that you can mentally prepare.
A few more optimizations include:
- Skipping the Task Inbox: tasks sometimes land in the task manager inbox first (when added with a quick add or from a post-it note) but almost all the task managers actually allow you to skip the inbox right at task creation: in other words, as you create the task you can already tag it, associate with a project and (this is key) schedule it for the date you think you’ll be able to get to it.
- Using projects or tags to group things into buckets: this is very helpful when you do have extra time to plan where big items should fall. Tags will allow you to click on an area (work, family, friends, project A, project B) and identify the important items there. In this respect, task manager projects are also different to email folders: the later tend to hold emails you likely don’t need to act on anymore, the former hold things that in principle you want to do sometime.
- Use “anytime” or “sometime”: I often find things I want to do with family and friends but that have no fixed timeline. I tend to put these into projects and tag them “anytime”/”sometime”. This means they will never automatically show up in the today view, but they form a great list of inspirational ideas for when it does come to planning the fun stuff.
- Back up your task manager…: this may seem obvious, but losing task data would be very painful so I use a number of different ways to back up tasks including Things cloud service. Do the same unless you’re willing to risk losing it all!
- Use paper sometimes: when really important tasks are on deck, I often write them on paper at the start of the week or in the evenings. In fact, I generally do this once per day. This means they take on status even higher than in the task manager and you don’t even need to open your computer to see what’s next.
Of course the actual selection of tasks to prioritize is a big factor as well but more on that in another post perhaps. In general taking the biggest, ugliest tasks first in the day is a good strategy. As Mark Twain put it
"If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first"
This helps make sure meaningful progress happens each day before smaller items eat up the time.
Is it really better?
I’m by no means a master at this method or other productivity tricks, but I can genuinely say that Inbox Zero (which has helped me for many years) combined with the Task Box Zero flow have been hugely helpful in bringing some sanity to chaos.
I still often get stuck in my inbox or with an overflow of long task lists, but being able to get a calmer overview of what’s important is really valuable.
On the surface it may look like all that’s really happening is that the items in the Task Box are being punted into the future and you have to do them eventually anyway: so what is really being gained? The key value is really in three powerful things:
- Very often some of those things that seem important today but get deferred, never end up needing to be done: circumstances change, needs change etc. so something that you may have done because it was “on the list”, simply wasn’t valuable enough to ever make the cut. This is huge. A Buddhist might say “the lightest rock is the one you don’t have to lift”.
- Not having a long list of things in your immediate view that you know you cannot possibly complete frees up a great deal of mental capacity. An annoying mid-level priority item you “might” get to today exerts a constant tax on your decision making while it is on your immediate to-do list.
- It brings into focus the bigger important items which really need to be done each day, week, month (the frogs) and puts them front and center to be worked on.
Lastly, using a method like this really does cut down the overwhelm of overflowing task lists. It doesn’t create more time in the day or magically reduce workload, but just as Inbox Zero frees from the paralysis of a constant stream of messages, this helps you focus on what you can and are achieving v’s all the things you “could” be working on.
If you’re using Inbox Zero already, I highly recommend hacking at your task management workflow to see if something like this helps. If you’ve never tried Inbox Zero I highly recommend giving it a try.
(*1) If an email is spam or from a list you are on you no longer need, it might be 20 seconds to go ahead and unsubscribe from that list if you can and mark any spam as spam.
(*2) This is not true in shared task management systems where other people can add tasks for you, that presents a whole other level of challenges. For the purposes of this text I’m only talking about your own personal task lists which you control.
Photo credit: S. Willmott.