Life used to be simple (or so we like to think). Those who worked in an office had an “in” box. When the inbox was empty, you were up-to-date. Incoming paper went in the box. Phone messages were jotted on slips of paper and dropped in that box. Ideas could be jotted on scraps of paper and dropped in the box to be handled later.


In the “old days”…

In the “old days,” work showed up in few places. Check the mailbox at home and dump the contents into your inbox at home. Check your mailbox at work and dump the contents into your inbox. When you saw the bottom of the in-box, you could relax.

But now…

Getting “in” to “empty” was the name of the game. Getting “in” to “empty” is still the name of the game. What has changed is how many “ins” you have. Before you can get a handle on everything that calls for your attention, you have to first get a good idea of the number of “ins” and where they are. Ask yourself if you have:

  • …a mailbox at home for U.S. mail?
  • …a mailbox at home for U.S. mail?…a box at work where your receive mail and paper messages?
  • …a box at work where your receive mail and paper messages?
  •  …voicemail at home?
  • …voice mail at work? …voicemail on a cell phone?
  •  …voice mail on a cell phone?…email at home?
  • …email at home?…email at work?
  • …email at work?…more than one e-mail account at either home or work?
  • …more than one e-mail account at either home or work?…a notepad living by the phone?
  • …a notepad living by the phone?
  • …a fax machine (still)?
  • …a bulletin board at work where information is posted?
  • …a work website you are expected to check?
  • …a legal pad where you take notes during meetings?
  • …information fed into Evernote?
  • …a memo pad in your pocket?
  • …a briefcase or purse that collects papers?
  • …social media accounts to check?
  • …professional reading piling up in your reader feed?

One inbox or many more? How many do you have?

You may have more in addition to those examples. Take a few minutes to sit down with pencil and paper. List the “ins” you have. If you get them all, the length of the list may surprise you. Each one is an opportunity for things to slip through the cracks. Use this list as a starter. Before you can organize all of your “ins” and have any hope of getting them to “empty,” first you have to know where they are.
Time Management

How many can you eliminate?

Secondly, think about how many you can eliminate? While you may have five different e-mail accounts, tools such as Outlook or Gmail can be configured to check every e-mail account and dump them all into one place.

If you have one notebook where you take notes during meetings and another for phone calls and another for meetings with clients, could you merge them into one book with every interaction in chronological order?

Can we get rid of that bulletin board where current information is camouflaged by notices for meetings that happened four years ago, but nobody ever took them down? The fewer places you have to look, the less opportunity exists for the ball to be dropped.

Where can you eliminate duplicates?

Finally, can we get rid of duplicate notices? If you have ever gotten a phone call asking if you got the faxed copy of the e-mail sent to both your home and work e-mail addresses, you know what I mean. You are looking at a noise-filled corporate culture that is out of control. The time spent to examine how information is communicated in the company and how it could be improved is a great investment of time.

Of course, we can’t roll back the clock to 1975 and the one inbox. We live in a world where information will continue to arrive in multiple places and in multiple forms. Trapping it all, funneling it into one place, and organizing it so that we clearly see our marching for the day…that’s the challenge for the 21st-century knowledge worker.

How many “Ins” can you count in your own life? When you counted them, was the number a surprise? 

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