Multiple inboxes — better decisions

Gonçalo Gil Mata — №27 with Tomasz Szymanski

This article belongs to a series where I’m addressing GTD 2.0 — most desired upgrades to David Allen’s methodology. Last article was about the missing link between projects and next actions. Today I’m going to propose an advanced setting with multiple IN-Baskets and differently paced processing routines.

Getting in to empty, easy?

One of the strong pillars of GTD is the power of collecting and processing. It means not only enhanced focus — a place to hold stuff out of your mind — but also trust in your system — when you put something in your IN, it will get dealt with in the very near future.

Humm, yes, sure… Well, really? Maybe you are very disciplined and you processed your inboxes to 100% empty in the last few days… But that’s often not the case for most of my clients. They pick what they want from the stack and leave the rest. In fact, the golden rule of zero-bounce just seems counter-intuitive, and when a system relies too much on a routine that creates struggle, we know it will fail anytime soon.

Decision making and clear strategy

Processing requires decisions and risk taking, and that’s why we resist it. Easy decisions require a clear strategy behind them — a solid vision makes it simpler to steer the boat. But the random nature of our inputs doesn’t care. In fact, when processing your inbox, you’ll likely be prompted to decide about stuff miles apart from your current focus.

It won’t be a true “someday/maybe” case — rather you just aren’t clear enough what could be a next-action. At least not yet, not this morning, when you have so much to deal with in other much more important areas. But a little voice in your head goes “never back into inbox — decide!”

A method requiring intensive decision making is basically demanding that you have very clear strategies, all the time. And that only happens if you have a really stable life and business, with not much new stuff going on. New stuff means unknown territory, and it means unclear direction. A new business opportunity, a major client going bankrupt, a technological breakthrough… A storm is rocking your boat, and someone is asking you to decide some detail like what color should we paint the boat when things calm down. Seems like an unproductive use of mental horsepower!

The enhanced power of grouping

When you move to a different house, you split your stuff: “Keep” and “Get rid of”. But the fact is you won’t really know the answer for everything until you decide many other aspects of your new place, and especially if you haven’t yet appreciated the overall volume versus space available. A “maybe” category is really welcome. So when you finish going through it all and look at the huge “maybe” pile, you will probably clear up what will be your strategy around that. And when you do, deciding each item becomes really easy. Much easier, for sure, when processing each single new item was lacking structured criteria.

The same applies to a micro calendar decision, which will depend on a big picture of a waiting-for-schedule pile. Deciding to buy or not to buy a new PC… it’s easy to decide after looking at the financial budget and a list of other concurrent acquisitions. Grouping is a really powerful way to enhance strategy definition, enabling effortless decision making.

That being said, GTD’s funnel processing one-by-one method is just not good enough — sorry GTD'ers about questioning such sacred territory. We need distinct grouping, multiple pools, multiple inboxes. And they don’t have to empty at the same speed and cadence.

Multiple pools

For example: at my company, I have the managing responsibility of dealing with what I call “System Stuff” — taxes, invoices, approvals. Though they come into my inbox randomly during the week, I only do those on Mondays (emergencies excepted). I don’t even care about the 2 min. rule in that case. I merely route them into “System Stuff Inbox”, physical or digital. No decision needed. Then Monday arrives, I engage Monday-system-stuff mode, I make a good review of what’s going on, KPI’s and budget, and I correct/update global strategy for this type of stuff. Then, it becomes really fast and easy to decide upon 30 or 40 items in a row from that special inbox.

The same for clothes to buy, money, calendar requests, movies to watch, and all the other pools you might want to create, and then reroute micro-decisions to a more strategic framing, avoiding unwelcome focus shifting and poor short-sighted micro-decisions.

The risk of leaving stuff behind

Please notice that there’s a risk with multiple pools. You must be much better at programming the corresponding multiple review processes. That being said, I believe if you tighten it up to the natural flow of your life, it will flow much more smoothly, becoming more real-need-oriented, not clean-system-oriented.

Apart from creating different inboxes, I also have a safeguard “NOW-basket” that I keep very close and can’t wait for pacing. The rest goes to several different queues that can then be subdivided even further, pushing stuff to the right sub-queues.

If you’re thinking that’s avoiding decisions, you are absolutely right. You should make decisions within a context of direction, and you can’t be setting and updating directions all the time for all the multiple aspects of your life… especially if your world rocks!

Final wrap

Optimize the mental effort of decision making by avoiding single item decisions. Queue items for each area, respecting their corresponding pace needs in order to obtain a good global view of what’s pending. Review/update global strategy for the group area before fast-processing group items. Be careful. This is a rather advanced model requiring well structured pacing program with the right alerts to take you to the right queues at the right time/context. Otherwise, you will lose track, and leave stuff behind!

I’ll be back with more on GTD 2.0. Until then, I welcome any thoughts or comments on this article at Productive! Magazine’s Facebook fan page!

Photo: Flickr/Gregory Jordan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Goncalo gil mata

Gonçalo Gil Mata

Gonçalo is an executive coach, speaker, and author who is dedicated to enhancing top productivity in individuals and organizations. He is the founder of MIND4TIME and author of the blog What’s The Trick (, where he writes about productivity tricks and brain mechanics.

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