Inbox overload: you’ve got it, too

Posted by in Productivity

Inbox overload: you've got it, too

Recognize this scenario? You’re in front of your laptop, cringing as you attempt to remember the location of that precious scrap of information which you need right now. Maybe it’s in there? Or over here? Or… not there. Brain, meet Inbox overload.


Have you ever though about how technology has a tendency to sneak up on you? It happens with the strangest of things. Smartphones that wake you up based upon monitoring your sleep patterns. Photocopiers with security measures that could scare the pants off your average cubicle worker. Japanese robo-toilets that appear to take their inspiration from car washes.


Quite frankly, it’s unnerving at times, and although it’s easy to argue that the advance of technology simplifies our lives, one can also find examples of the opposite hiding in plain sight. Such as where you came to learn about this article.


Chances are, it found its way to you either through e-mail, RSS or Twitter, which are the primary push channels through which content from this humble web site is delivered. Or, bless your heart, you actually have time to stop by every now and then without having to be reminded by an automated process.


There are how many of them again?


But those three options are just a few of the different ways – different Inboxes – through which communication can reach us. Yes, there’s e-mail, for which most people have at least one work and one personal account. The same goes for postal mail. A surprising number of people subscribe to more than one instant messaging service, and most everyone I know use RSS aggregators to quickly find the bits and pieces they’re interested in from the informational equivalent of the River Styx.


Ah, but there’s more. Social services, such as Twitter, Facebook and a whole host of others. Online banking services with confidential information that cannot be sent via e-mail. Phone calls. Voice mail. Project collaboration solutions at your workplace. Faxes (if you have to exchange signed documents quickly). SMS messages.


And last, but not least, someone could actually do something as horrific as walk up to you and start talking.


Inbox insanity is doing your head in


Availability is a good thing. Having to check a two-digit number of inboxes to see whether something is waiting for you is most certainly not.


Let’s try a quick thought experiment. Imagine someone nailing 15 post boxes around your house – all a different colour. Now let’s stuff 20 messages in each of them. Let’s say you actually read every single one of them (because, after all, there could be something important in there), and then resolve to get some work done. Suddenly, you realize that you need some information. From one of the inboxes. The gree… er, wait… the yellow one? No. The blue. That’s it, the blue. And what was that thing you had to remember again? It’s in there… somewhere.


This perfectly mirrors the reality most of us face – although perhaps slightly exaggerated. Some of us are good at emptying the inboxes at regular intervals, putting everything in neatly organized stacks which allow for rapid discovery of potential tasks and information that needs to be kept for future reference. Sounds boring, right?


Actually, it is boring. It can, in fact, be mind-numbing at times. Yet, it’s also critical to avoid wasting time and energy much in the same way a Hummer wastes gasoline.


Streamlining is key

The message is simple enough: if you have a large number of inboxes – which most everyone do without realizing it – without a simple a structured manner in which to handle them efficiently, they will consume precious time and energy as you attempt to remember what is where and just what to do about it. What you have to do is to get everything that comes in organized into a single queue, whether it’s something you need to do something about or reference material you might need at a later point in time.


To do this, I rely mostly on two principles: reducing my number of inboxes, and aggregating information into daily (or weekly) digests as well as heavy filtering whenever the services I utilize allow this – such as Gmail’s Priority Inbox, or Facebook’s highly customizable e-mail alerts. My general advice would be to poke around your options; you’ll be surprised at what you can actually achieve even without resorting to 3rd party services.


As for handling what actually is delivered into my inboxes, reference material are dealt with courtesy of Microsoft OneNote for all sorts of notes and research, combined with cloud-based storage which synchronizes neatly to allow for rapid access to files and materials which don’t belong in OneNote. For tasks, I use a lightweight application called MyLife Organized, which is an impressive tool for quickly capturing, organizing and prioritizing tasks as they show up on my radar – regardless of where they originated.


This way, everything is centralized, backed up and searchable in a manner of a few keystrokes, which lets me trust the system to hold everything I need instead of attempting to pointlessly convert my brain into a storage facility. In fact, I would not be able to manage even half of my current commitments if I did not rely on such a system.


By now, you’re likely wondering whether this would work for you. If you’re thinking it might not, that’s perfectly alright. Then again – what if it did?