Capture - 1. Inboxes

When I first started in seminary, one of the faculty described the program as "trying to drink from a fire-hose." I learned later that this is a cliché used by lots of academic programs - but the metaphor does a fine job of describing the immense challenge of capturing information and responsibilities. It can be difficult to gather everything that needs to be processed - and the same is true in our work contexts as well.

One of the specific frustrations I've experienced in the Higher Ed context, more than in any other work experience, is the way that new streams (or to maintain the metaphor, fire-hoses) seem to spring up. I referenced this earlier in the post entitled Streamlining Inboxes, but I thought I'd spend the next several posts describing solutions to the problem of "Capture."

Establishing Inboxes

One of the best pieces of advice I've received on capturing is to have great set of inboxes. As David Allen suggests, one should have as many as are needed, "No more, and no less." I have four major inboxes, and wherever possible, I like to push everything I can into one of those four. Here are the four that have a primary place in my workflow...

Evernote - I entitled this inbox "!Inbox" so that it remains at the top of the list of notebooks in my Evernote. This is the default notebook for everything that goes into Evernote - which tends to be a lot of stuff. I make it a priority to clean this inbox at least once a week (I have a recurring task to remind me to get it done on Friday afternoon). If I am having a crazy week, I may clean it more than once in the week.

Dropbox - Like Evernote, I have a file folder called "!Inbox." The folder sits at the top of my list of folders. I save EVERYTHING into that notebook, and in fact, I have designated it as the default place to save files from the text editor, Scrivener, Word, and everything else. As in the case of Evernote, I clean this out on Friday afternoon.

Email Inbox - This inbox gets cleaned once or twice a day. I tend to process mail before lunch and before leaving work for the day. Tasks are sent to my task manager, receipts and reference materials are sent to Evernote, and everything else is sent to the email archive. 

Task Manager Inbox - This inbox gets cleaned twice a day. After I have processed my email inbox, I'll go to my task manager (in my case, OmniFocus) and assign tasks to projects, assign contexts, and defer dates.

Streamlining Inboxes

Whenever possible, I try to get all information to flow into one of these four inboxes. I'd rather not have to go to 17 different apps and platforms to "hope" against hope that I haven't missed something important. Here are some ways that I have found streamlining to work for me...

Shared Google Docs/Spreadsheets - Some of my colleagues (with whom I collaborate on research) prefer to write in google docs. A very easy way to get these into one of my four inboxes is to copy the link to a file and attach it to the note of a task. I keep the task active (deferring as necessary) until I am done editing a shared document/spreadsheet. The link ensures that I am accessing the latest version of a shared google doc, but I don't have to open google drive to see what's going on. I also have some files on my own google drive that need to stay there (shared with others, attached to scripts, etc.). In those cases, I have created a Hazel rule that copies them into Dropbox so that I have the most recent versions in my Dropbox system.

VoiceMail Messages - My assistant and student workers take messages on the phone for me. I asked them to always ensure that the subject line of the phone message starts with "VMS..." I have a quick and easy IFTTT recipe to look for messages with "VMS" and send them to my OmniFocus maildrop.

Drop-Zones - If Evernote is on your dock, you can easily drop files onto the icon to have them uploaded to your Evernote inbox. I also have a drop zone for my Dropbox Inbox (see the images below), and created a Hotspot using Hazel to do the same with OmniFocus (coming in a future post). I can quickly drop a file onto any one of these three icons in the dock to have files shunted to the appropriate inbox.

 I created a folder named "!Inbox" and found an icon to make it stand out. Then, I simply dragged the folder onto the dock next to the other folders. Now I can quickly drop email attachments or things from my desktop onto the hotspot.

I created a folder named "!Inbox" and found an icon to make it stand out. Then, I simply dragged the folder onto the dock next to the other folders. Now I can quickly drop email attachments or things from my desktop onto the hotspot.

Phone Calls - When I am on the phone, I almost always have a new OmniFocus task opened and ready to capture. I've discovered that almost 80% (I measured it, cuz ... you know ... nerd) of the phone calls I make or receive contain some task that either I or someone else needs to get done. I tried opening Evernote for each phone call, but discovered that I rarely need to capture information, and more often need to capture a task (or a delegated task). 

Email Forwarding - I can't remember whom I owe this nugget to, but they deserve three cheers. When I forward an email to my OmniFocus, the subject line changes to "FWD: <original subject line>" - which means that I either have to fix all of the task names in OmniFocus, or get over the fact that much of my task list has the blasted FWD prefix. But if you are using, you can REDIRECT an email to your task manager, rather than FORWARDING the email. In this case, the email is sent to the task manager without all of the forward formatting junk.

Processing Inboxes

Sometimes (less than 15% of the time), I may to skip Inboxes and file things directly where they need to go. I've determined to do this only when I a) know where the file needs to go, b) have the time to put it there, c) named the file according to the naming convention, and d) know for certain that the file (or note) will be saved forever.

Otherwise, I process information in my Inboxes by asking myself a series of questions...

  1. Should I just delete it? - Sometimes I save stuff into Evernote, and by Friday I realize that it's not nearly as important as it seemed while I was drunk with web-clipping joy. I'll delete that stuff first.
  2. Does it belong in a different Inbox? - There are times where a task ends up in Evernote, or a file ends up in Dropbox that probably belonged in Evernote. I'll determine if it's in the right place.
  3. Is the file named correctly? - I try to follow a strict naming convention (see my convention HERE). Sometimes, stuff that needs to stay needs to be renamed.
  4. Should the item be processed? - Metadata like tags, projects, contexts, start dates, reminders, etc. get added to the file, note, task, or email.

Going from Inbox Zero to Inbox Hero

When I first heard Merlin Mann describe the Inbox Zero idea, I immediately took note, and started archiving all of my old emails. It turns out, that was not what he was suggesting. It's more about processing the inbox consistently and intentionally, getting stuff where it needs to be, and creating a means by which it is out of mind until it is necessary. Anyone can "select all" in gmail and "archive." But more attention and intention is necessary to actually "process" mail and tasks and files and notes into places where they belong. I call it, "getting to inbox hero."

Image Credit:

Posted on June 25, 2015 and filed under General, Evernote.