Streamlining Inboxes

The Problem

As I see it, one of the most significant challenges to efficiently managing workflows stems from the way new "inboxes" seem to emerge ex nihilo.  This is especially a problem for folks in Higher Ed., because we are constantly setting up new workflows for courses and other projects (quizzes, exams, papers, research, multiple email accounts, etc.).  I struggle with this myself - and I notice that a lot of my colleagues seem overrun by the myriad of different streams from where information and tasks can flood in.

For example: Students may be turning in work by email, or by paper, or through an LMS - all for the same course.  As those varied inputs are multiplied by several classes, it starts to take a great deal of time and attention to ensure that I keep it all managed.  I may have a work email, a personal email, and even a personal-business email - that's three streams from where information and tasks can flow.

The concept of "inbox" comes from the old-fashioned analogue idea of having a box on your desk where all information and tasks arrived.  I recently re-read David Allen's book "Getting Things Done" where he suggested having a system of folders and ticklers to process incoming tasks and projects.  But technology has made creating new inboxes fast, cheap, and easy.  Students can turn in work in many different formats (I actually had a student try to send me a paper by text message - not good).  I realized last year that I had three different LMS platforms for three different courses.  Administration may be communicating through blogs, email, and website updates.

At some point, it becomes imperative to streamline these - or else we spend our time managing where we go to look for information, rather than doing the work we love to do.

The Solution

This is not so much an easy solution, as much as it is a frame-of-mind.  I think constantly about limiting the number of "inboxes," and choosing carefully which new inboxes are allowed to exist in my workflows.  Here are some examples...

One Calendar - I learned this when I took Hyrum Smith's "Franklin Quest" training in the early 90s.  The more calendars we have to manage, the better the chances that we'll miss something.  The analogue problem was that I might have a calendar desk-blotter, another calendar hanging on my wall, one in the kitchen at home, etc.  I might commit to a meeting at 1:00 because my planner calendar is open at that time - but I forgot that I wrote an appointment in my desk calendar.  In the digital context, it is VERY easy to end up with multiple calendars.  I might have personal, work, and project calendars, as well as one for each course I am teaching.  These add up VERY quickly.  But think about it - I am ONE person.  I can only be in ONE place at a time.  I have only ONE life.  Consolidating those multiple calendars into one makes a lot of sense - and means that I only have to go one place to determine where and how my time will be used.

One Email - This is actually hard to do.  We are often asked to separate our personal and professional lives.  I'd like to make the argument that, in the case of Higher Education, that line is blurred.  I saw this when I was in full-time ministry - having neatly parsed "personal" and "professional" streams was artificial at best.  If you read email outside of work hours, or personal emails during work hours, the distinction between the two streams is merely theoretical.  I am down to one email account - I have different aliases for that email account, so people send email to me through different "addresses".  Another option is to have one account's emails forwarded to the other.

One Task Manager - Think of all the places you might jot tasks down: sticky notes pasted to your computer screen, a project outlined on a napkin sitting in your drawer, a list of reminders scribbled on the back of an envelope.  The problem with this kind of "system" is that you can never really be certain that you've a clear idea of what tasks need to be addressed.  There are some very nifty and well-designed task-management apps that help you narrow those into one inbox.  I use Omnifocus, but there are some other great tools as well: Todoist, Wanderlist, Nozbe, Asana, etc.  I plan on reviewing a number of these in future posts - but the point here is, get your tasks into one place.

One File Center - I have lately become quite frustrated with the number of "cloud" services that I use to manage documents.  I use Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and a couple of other lesser-known services.  Moving or migrating into one "inbox" is kind of a quest for me these days.  I've discovered that there are some ways to get that done (on a mac, you can use Hazel or Quicksand).

Tips and Tricks

  • Train the people around you: Dealing with colleagues or administration can be difficult - but I don't allow students to create new inboxes for me.  I create the inbox, and require them to use it for submitting assignments.
  • Use nifty scripts: Services like Zapier, or IFTTT, Applescripts, or even Google scripts can "push" information into your preferred inboxes.  For example, I have automated tasks generated in Podio and Trello to wind up in my Omnifocus inbox.  If a task is generated in those (and other) places, I can be confident that Zapier will send them directly to me.  Zapier and IFTTT are easy to use for those of us who are script-illiterate.
  • Manage the brushfires: As mentioned above, the best fix is to adopt a frame-of-mind that looks carefully and consistently at these emerging inboxes.  When new ones pop up, ask whether they are really useful.  It's easier to quell a new inbox early - it's very difficult to exterminate one later.
Posted on December 5, 2014 and filed under GTD.