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Inbox Zero and GTD: a personal success story

After years of attempting to apply the philosophies of Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done (including, appropriately, failing to finish the GTD book twice), my personal and work inboxes are empty and I've never felt so on-top of my tasks. In no particular order, here are some changes I've made that have helped me out:

On top of Slogen
Forget what you're standing on and focus.

I read The 4-Hour Work Week, which touches on Inbox Zero and adds some interesting productivity-increasing ideas, including giving up on boring articles and the controversial "don't waste time reading news". I haven't stopped reading news, but I feel like I've gotten a little more efficient at it. I mostly ignore mailing lists (except those for my immediate projects). The only reason I'm subscribed to some is so that I can reply to them on the occasion I'm CC'd or someone brings up a specific discussion to me.

Along the line of distractions, I've been training myself to catch them before they happen. Because there's increasing evidence that multi-tasking reduces productivity (and it seems obvious to me anyhow), I push myself to not switch tasks unless I absolutely have to. And I actively ignore anything that I know will needlessly steal my focus. This includes only checking up on IRC periodically (and mostly just to check for messages that have been highlighted for me). If it's urgent, people will send me a direct message (and Gnome Shell will give me a nice notification).

I believe the author of 4HWW intentionally mentions keeping only calendar events, not tasks. I've always liked the idea that you will remember anything important and anything minor will come up again (particularly because I've struggled with far too many tasks in my GTD system). But that seems too extreme/unworkable for me, so the key has just been being much more aggressive in deleting tasks that sit too long (knowing I'll never get to them) and doing periodic sweeps through each list. If you have trouble with that, you might want to create a "some day" list to move neglected tasks to. Then, just make a point to ignore that list. I think I'm nearly ready to delete mine.

Another part of minimizing mental burden has been closing application tabs and windows and conversation notifications as soon as I can. When I finish a task, I close everything related to it (even if I think I'll use some of them later). The stress saved by this reduction in visual noise is much greater than occasionally having to re-open something sooner than expected (which is incredibly rare, as you might imagine).

SandyBridge_Die
Your screen should not look like this.

And the latest change I've made, just before reaching inbox zero/GTD zen, has been to batch process my inboxes. I had a terrible habit of glancing at mail, flagging it important and unread, then moving on. It turns out that I subconsciously skip over bold, red lines of text. This was a horrible priority inversion that lead me to sporadically clearing out the simple mail while ignoring the high-priority, difficult tasks.

Now, when I do my few daily mail passes, I do two quick passes (always in oldest to newest order, never skipping any):
  1. Add tasks, file mail
    1. parse out new tasks to my GTD system (setting due date and priority appropriately)
    2. if it needs a trivial or no response, give it immediately, then file
    3. otherwise, move on to the next letter
  2. Give non-trivial responses
    1. Read the letter in detail
    2. Respond to each point necessary

Now, with an empty inbox, I can get work done by just drilling through items in my work or personal task list in order from highest to lowest priority. It's a lot harder to skip around, ignoring the important tasks, when they're sitting in front of you, in the exact order you've chosen yourself.

I still have things to improve (I really wish I had one place to manage all my tasks, not several), but I finally feel in control of my day-to-day goals!

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