University work never gets boring. It evolves continuously, so does the problems that must be taken care of. Every now and then, I set aside some time, think about my workflow on a higher level than usual, and check if the tools and methods that form my productivity system are up to the task.
The only thing that never changes is the fact that I rely on David Allen’s Getting Things Done in all my endeavors. The core principles of the GTD drive my workflow for years. I just can’t imagine how it is possible to survive without it.
When I sit down and think over underlying principle behind my workflows, the idea is to get rid of unnecessary clutter and simplify processes as much as reasonably possible. One of the most important aspects of efficient productivity is keeping under control all the points where the information enters your system. Frankly, at this point, life is way too complicated to keep and control just a single collection bucket or INBOX. That would be too much hassle, so I always use at least few. They all have to be regularly reviewed to keep things in order and up to date.
I just finished this year’s spring cleaning, so I can tell you a little about how my current data acquisition model looks like. Perhaps will find below some ideas to implement in your own productivity system.
Two types of INBOXes
The stuff can reach me through one of two categories of INBOXes: physical and digital. Physical inbox is simply a tray on my desk (one at home and one at work) where I put any piece of paper that needs to be taken care of. This is the old school inbox as described by David Allen in his book.
Digital inboxes are many, any relying on them is more complicated. Initially, I tried to build everything around a single digital collection bucket, but it didn’t work. There were many complications that slowed down the collection process. I decided to add inboxes for special purposes, which in the end brought me to five distinct locations dedicated to different aspects of my organized life. I combined them into two types: inboxes where people throw their stuff at me and inboxes where I control what kind of information enters my system.
So, lets take a look at the first category:
- Email – most common and unavoidable entry point. This is the place where other people push information at me. I am regularly contacted by students, other researches, administration, etc. Email is necessary and requires constant review in order to stay under control. It is unlikely that I will ever get rid of email, but in some cases the number of emails can be reduced. This is why, nowadays, I rely on…
- Instant messaging – Slack entered my life few years ago and made a revolution. We adopted it in our research team and basically got rid of our whole internal email communication. This is a place where my colleagues can always find me, question me, and send me requests for whatever they need.
In the next category of inboxes, I fully control what information enters my system. There are three kinds of inputs. They are complimentary and all play important role in my workflow.
- Reminders – As the numer of my projects increased every year I needed to keep all of them under control in some kind of to-do system. The amount of information of enormous and very often, I have to be reminded to do something of to follow-up on something. In my case everything lands in OmniFocus, which is one of the best task and project managing application. Every time I need to write a reminder for some action to be taken in the future, it goes straight to my OmniFocus inbox. The principle is: every task must be actionable, thus it should start with a verb followed by some other information. For example “Buy hard drive.” or “Write summary of the Wang’s paper.” I also use tasks to organize follow-ups. Some reminders are there to notify me that I am still waiting for something and a follow-up is required. For example, “Waiting for the laboratory report.”. Whenever I consider to remember to do something, it makes a new task in OmniFocus.
- Appointments – the second category of inputs. When a meeting is set I do not put the information to some inbox to deal with it later. Instead, I immediately create calendar entry, which usually takes 20-30 seconds and its done. In modern world, it would be extremely inefficient to create reminders about putting things in calendar. As David Allen pointed out, if something lands in your calendar, it must happen on a given time, or at all. Some people have calendars driven by their assistants or other people. That is also fine. For now, I prefer to set the scene on my own.
- Other digital stuff – this category is the most important because it is the digital version of a traditional paper tray. Every scrap of potentially usable information, notes, photos, voice records, someday/maybe things (books to read, movies to watch, articles to skim, etc.), saved websites, everything goes right into this inbox. I will figure out what to do with it later. This is also the place where I delete most of stuff. Only limited number of things passes this check point and become resource materials.
This is how my set of inboxes looks like. It allows me to conduct the collecting phase in quite efficient manner. Five works for me, you might need more. It is good idea to keep this number to minimum because at one point everything will go through one of the above channels. It just need to work for you. So, what is your next action?