The Promise of an Inbox
An Inbox offers us a wonderful promise. Put an idea there, and you can keep doing what you’re doing. You don’t have to worry about it until later. It will sit and wait patiently for when you’re ready to take it on.
Much like a credit card, “Buy now! Pay later!” can be quite alluring.
After several sessions, however, of throwing things into this wonderful Inbox, we are faced with a debt.
At the Inbox, we are met with a pile of half-baked ideas, some important, some artifacts of whim, some hardly intelligible. The multiple unrelated ideas all need consideration, each in midstream, each with origins and visions, each in various stages of life, flowing strong or drying up if not dead.
A feeling of failure may not be far off, with procrastination easily catching its scent. Looking at a growing numbered badge of the Inbox on a phone application becomes unsightly and avoided.
Much like avoiding an unattended credit card statement, you might just as easily turn off the Inbox notification badge.
How about declaring “Inbox bankruptcy”, by deleting everything and starting again?
The Debts of an Inbox
So what is the nature of this debt?
At the grandest scheme, any task is a debt. When designed well, a task is a vessel holding 1. where something is 2. where something might be 3. a step in between
In other words, a task holds a differential between what is and what could be.
The Inbox, however, adds second and third debts.
Second in that the tasks are often not worded well. They are captured fragments, ideas that the mind somehow thought, “oh I’ll know what I meant by ‘online codex’, ‘go to the store’, or similar.
Third in that the tasks are distant from their destinations. For example, a task to call someone sitting in the Inbox is harder to reach when relevant than one sitting in a relatively short, regularly-visited call list.
So, in order to restore these debts, beyond simply completing the task and getting rid of it, we would need to clarify the task and bring it closer to its destination.
The Interest of an Inbox
However, the ideas in an Inbox are also less fresh in mind than when they were first created.
To manage, we now need to consider its relevance. We now have to work to bring the ideas back to mind in order to even manage the tasks themselves, let alone the work they represent.
In other words, we must now pay the debt’s interest, the loss of freshness in mind and its restoration.
This practice of envisioning takes time. Had we done all of these in the moments of writing the original idea, crafting a well-considered task, the debt and its interest would be minimal. But if we try to craft a well-considered task in the moments of its inspiration, we also detract from whatever else we were just doing.
Sometimes using an Inbox makes perfect sense, much as it does to use a credit card. But, we must acknowledge that there is a debt and interest to be paid.
Paid off regularly and mindfully, a credit card can be quite useful. Ignore it and the various debt collectors will be knocking on our door before long.
Consider the following prompts for when to process an Inbox:
- When you have any worry that something important is lurking there.
- When you worry that placing something there will be missed.
- Visiting with regularity, e.g. daily or twice daily
PS To consider managing the additional difficulties on an Inbox for those with wandering minds, consider Waves of Focus: Guiding a Wandering Mind.
PPS To see examples of an Inbox working well in larger systems, consider Being Productive: Simple Steps to Calm Focus or Creating Flow with OmniFocus.