Originally, “Inbox Zero” applied only to our emails. Merlin Mann said that if you process all your incoming email as it arrives, it won’t accumulate. That will help you stay focused and organized.
Over time, because Inbox Zero swims in the same productivity water that Getting Things Done does, the Inbox Zero concept became conflated with the GTD Inbox concept. That’s a fair conflation, as it’s built on the same theory: empty out your GTD Inbox every day, and you’ll reduce stress and improve focus and organization.
I’m not here to argue with that concept, per se. We all see the logic—in theory, at least. But despite that theoretical logic, our GTD Inboxes are overflowing, plugged up with stuff we’ve captured but we haven’t found a place for.
In this newsletter, whenever I use the term Inbox, I’m referring to the GTD-style tool for capturing tasks and ideas, not to your email app.
If we see the logic of clearing the Inbox every day, does that mean our failure is a lack of discipline? If we were just better people, could we lead our GTD Inboxes safely back to Zero every day?
On some level, perhaps. For most of my GTD years, I processed my Inbox every day, and undeniably, some of that was discipline. But also, I work alone, and I’m choosy about the work I do. Which means my Inbox is not anywhere near as daunting as some.
If you’re capturing sixty-five things per day, there isn’t a chance you’ll maintain an Inbox-clearing practice for long. The time and energy sunk into clearing an overwhelming Inbox will eventually wear you down.
Where does that leave us? If we all understand that our GTD-style Inboxes should be processed daily, but they overflow anyway… what do we do?
The answer is so simple you’ll not believe it at first. Get rid of your Inbox.
💡 Be an Inbox Nero—burn it to the ground 💡
👆 That’s your weekend upgrade.
An Inbox is a bottleneck. A big-time bottleneck. You can throw things into it willy-nilly, but when it’s time to make decisions about those things, you have to go through them one by one. That can turn into a lot of time and energy.
In effect, an Inbox guarantees you’re touching everything twice. Every note, every task, every quasi-task that you’re not sure what to do with. I use the term surfacing to describe the process of bringing a task to your attention. Inboxes surface everything twice—once to decide where to put it, and then again at the appropriate time when you actually need to see it.
Bottlenecks are sometimes unavoidable, but we can avoid this Inbox bottleneck. The answer lies in the idea that once an item goes into your Second Brain, it should only surface when you need it.
Bins and Projects
To replace your Inbox, create Bins.
There is a conceptual space between Inboxes and Projects that GTD doesn’t address. Tasks within a project should pull toward a common outcome—they are related because they point toward the same purpose.
But there are lots of tasks in our lives that are related, but by category, not by purpose or outcome. “Replace the doorknob on the downstairs bathroom door” and “Decorate the Christmas tree” don’t share an outcome, but they’re both “Household” tasks. In my case, “File the returned choral anthems” and “Call Dan to tune the church piano” aren’t tied to a common purpose, but they’re both my “Church Work.”
Bins fill this niche. They contain tasks related by categories: Areas of Responsibility, roles you play in life or work, important places or people, etc.
How on earth, you may ask, would a variety of Bins replace an Inbox?
Because the primary challenge posed by the question “where do I put this?” isn’t knowing where to put it. It’s having a place to put it! Our hesitation goes away when there’s a defined Bin for those tasks that don’t belong in projects but are* *related by category. And, if there isn’t a Bin already, we need to be able to effortlessly create a new one.
“Ah, effortlessly,” you mock. “Sure, I bet. A whole bunch of Bins is too hard to keep track of!”
If you’re working with pens, papers, file cabinets, and the like, you may be right. But with the power of modern Tools for Thought, it’s child’s play to use Bins—so simple you never even need to visit the Bins!
How can Tana help?
Tana is my Tool for Thought of choice. It’s still in early access, but there are ways to get invites if you want to check it out. (My Tana for Tasks course, which is about to be upgraded, is one way! Joining the Tana Slack Community and introducing yourself is another.)
When I add a task to my Second Brain in Tana, I use a field to assign that task to a Bin or Project. It takes literally two seconds. If there’s no Bin that exists yet for that task, it takes maybe 2 more seconds to create one—because I can create it right there in the same field where I assign the task. The field only populates with the Bins and Projects that exist, but you can add a new one on the spot. You’ll find that, over time, you’ll rarely need to add new Bins. You’ll have the right ones already, and you’ll know where to put things.
And what’s more, I can schedule the task to appear on a certain date or during a particular review (via Horizons). That takes about 2 seconds, too. Which means that in 10 seconds or so—the vast majority of which is the time it takes to type the task—I can have a task assigned to an appropriate Bin or Project, and set up to surface at the appropriate time.
Do this for about a week and you’ll find you barely touch your catch-all Inbox anymore.
Miscellaneous: Inbox Lite
If you’re still not sold, just create a Miscellaneous Bin and use it when you might have used an Inbox in the past. I guarantee that, within a couple of weeks, you’ll hardly ever use it. Because you’ll have discovered the other Bins that suit your needs by then.
And for those Miscellaneous tasks that you’re not sure about, you can create a Recurring Task to check that Bin once every four days or so. There will be far fewer things there, and they’re likely to be less urgent and important anyway. No need to do a constant sweep.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t believe this at first either. When I introduced the Bins concept in Cohort Six of my Applied Action-Powered Productivity course (about 6 months ago), I included a “Capture & Dispatch” place to serve as the Inbox replacement. Guess what? Three weeks in, almost everyone in the cohort reported back that they weren’t using Capture & Dispatch at all. They didn’t need it, because their Bins did that work now.
What do I do next?
(1) Take 2 minutes and answer this question: What’s one thing I learned in this newsletter that I can put into practice right away?
By committing to a specific action, you make it much more likely you’ll do it.
(2) Create Bins for your Second Brain.
Ask yourself: What are the important areas, roles, and other categories in your work and life? Then create a Bin for each and start using them to assign tasks!
If this was valuable for you:
Share the newsletter with someone you think would also get value from it! https://rjn.st/weekend-upgrade-newsletters
Until next time, friends:
When you can’t figure out where something goes, make a place for it to go!
P.S. Between now and the week of May 21, my Tana for Tasks course is 25% off. You can buy it at the discount with this link. It’s reduced because… that same week Tana for Tasks 2 is launching! The course will be updated to incorporate Tana’s new AI features, Commands, Calendar view, Tana Capture, and more!