Brian McCarthy

Better organise your life with 3 InBoxes

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Each of us, every day, has to manage large amounts of new information coming at us in a continuous avalanche. Most of this information comes at us digitally, and there are many tools (my favourite being Evernote) to capture and organise this deluge. But what about the physical inputs? Are there effective ways of capturing and organising all the bits of paper, handouts, reports and receipts that pass through our hands every day? We all have our own method for dealing with and organising these bits of paper, but few of us have ever thought about whether it could be improved until we lose something important. In this post, I’d like to share 3 simple yet non-obvious ways to make your life tidier and more organised.

1. Put a big box on your desk.

Have you ever arrived at your desk in a rush to get started on something urgent and important only to find it in a mess and then spend 45 minutes tidying it up, by which time you’ve lost the momentum and urgency to start what you came to do? We procrastinate more when faced with important tasks, as these are often the ones that require us to think and write, and thinking and writing is a risky business, one that leaves us open to failure and ridicule. However, thinking and writing are also what makes you special and hopefully irreplaceable in your organisation. It’s important to get started as soon as possible when the mood takes you. However, it’s also important to work in an environment that is tidy and doesn’t distract you. The solution is simple. Get yourself a big box the size of a microwave (the cardboard box that your microwave came packed in is perfect!). Even better, but not essential, is a box with a lid. This box is now your general purpose InBox for everything that arrives at your desk during the day. If your desk is untidy, but you need to work, just throw everything into the box and sort it out later. If someone hands you something while you are working, don’t stop what you are doing to file it, or read it, just drop it in the box out of view. However, don’t keep throwing stuff into this box until it is overflowing. Every few hours, or once a day, give yourself a limited amount of time (e.g. 20 minutes) and take out each thing in the box and either file it or trash it or put it away. This box isn’t just for documents. If there are cables, or pens, or shoes on your table, they can be put in there also (this is why it’s important for the box to be big).

2. Put a mobile InBox in your bag.

If you get a receipt for a company expense, where do you put it? In your pocket? In your wallet? In the glove compartment of the car? If someone gives you a business card, where do you store it? If you have documents and important bits of paper lying around everywhere, part of you, whether you realise it or not, is going to be anxious about forgetting or losing something important. And this anxiousness will stop you from being fully present when you are with family and friends, and it will prevent you from concentrating 100% on the task at hand. The key to reducing this anxiousness is to have a trusted system in place for capturing all the stuff that comes into your life. A key part of such a system is to have a mobile InBox, a dedicated folder into which you put everything new that comes into your possession while you are away from your desk. For example, if I go to a meeting and someone gives me a report, I put it in this folder. When I go to a restaurant to eat, I put the receipt in this folder. When I go to a training workshop, I put the handouts in this folder. Do I open this folder and file everything when I get back to my desk? No, instead I just dump everything from my mobile InBox into my big Inbox on my desk and organise it later when there is a lull in my work or when I am feeling too tired for important work (e.g. after lunch).

3. Have one Inbox for your Ideas.

I like trying out new note-taking apps on my phone and tablet. And I also like quality notebooks and pens. I used to have three or 4 notebooks on the go at the same time, and each month I’d be trying out a new app. The result was that I would write down a great idea while on the train and later I wouldn’t be able to find it as I couldn’t remember which notebook I’d written it in! Or even worse, I’d have the idea, but then have a mini-crisis about where I’d like to write it (in my moleskin with a pen, or on my tablet with a stylus, or on my laptop) by which time I’d have forgotten the idea! So, the best thing is to have just one notebook where you write down everything. It can be digital or physical. The most important thing is that you have this notebook on you at all times. For this reason, your phone makes a great notebook, just remember to only use one app all the time. Personally, I prefer a physical notebook as I like to draw and make diagrams and mind maps, and this is very difficult on a phone. I have a pocket sized notebook and pen that I carry with me everywhere. On a regular basis, I go through what I have written in the notebook and transfer the entries to my to-do list, or to documents I am working on. My notebook has notes from class, to-do lists, ideas, drawings, phone numbers, books to read etc. Sometimes, I will use my phone to take photos of the pages and upload them to Evernote, which has handwriting recognition.