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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).

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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Can you elaborate more on this?

Which gtd software do you use? Or do you just do pen and paper? How do you process your tasks? When do you make projects out of tasks? How do you make priorities? How often do you process your gtd file?

Inbox zero works fine for me. GTD not that fine.

Re: Can you elaborate more on this?

I use Remember the Milk. It's got about the right level of features and has clients on the major mobile OSes.

Based on my context (whether I'm doing work or personal tasks), I just go through my "Work" or "Personal" list in (priority, due date) order.

I'm still improving my prioritizing. It's really obvious which things are highest priority and what's lowest priority. The hard parts are not over-prioritizing things in the middle and figuring out what shouldn't be added in the first place. Most of my unprioritized tasks should probably be dropped because I'll never get to them. Ideally, by the end of the day, there shouldn't be anything left that's due before tomorrow.

I scrub my pending tasks about once a week or any time I'm otherwise completely idle and stuck (like in a grocery store line). Luckily, that doesn't happen too often.

Re: Can you elaborate more on this?

Thanks for the reply.

I started reading 4HWW, but I found the advice in the opening chapters impractical at best, and downright dangerous at worst. I ended up not finishing the book. I can't get behind his approach, which is not about increasing productivity so much as increasing one's sense of entitlement.

On the other hand, I found GTD down-to-earth and practical. I discovered it college, and it really helped me get organized and get through it. I'm working a normal job these days, so I don't have as much need for the project / time management system, but I do still follow his system for organizing my files and papers. I spent a weekend setting it up 4 years ago, and since then it has saved countless hours of searching compared to the "pile system" I used to use, especially during tax season. During the week I let papers accumulate in an "in basket", and then once every week or two I spend about 30 minutes going through it, taking care of the actionable stuff and filing or discarding the rest.


Some GTD advice I can offer is to make sure all your file folders have tabs in the same place. It's too complicated and confusing to deal with non-aligned tabs. Also, I find label makers to be frustrating, wasteful, and expensive, but still preferable to my illegible hand-written labels. If you write neatly, you can probably skip the label maker. But if you have chicken scratches like mine, you're better off with it.

The one area of overlap between 4HWW and GTD is the way they treat distractions such as email. You want to periodically devote time to triage of a large number of items at once, rather than allowing instantaneous communication to continuously interrupt your current task. The trouble is that we find things like email rewarding, so it takes a fair mount of discipline to ignore all the various methods of communication that we have.

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