Outlook's Inboxes

A column by Jason Fry in the WSJ (registration required) talks about how he's changing how he uses his email inbox and in the process, talks about how people see the purpose of an email inbox differently. This got me thinking about how I've used my inbox in the past and how I'd like to use it. And honestly, that got me more excited about Office 2007.

One of the simplest, yet coolest, ideas that I got from reading David Allen's Getting Things Done is to use inboxes as a collection point for all the "stuff" in your life, and to limit how many inboxes you use. Since reading the book, I've gone through lots of different inboxes in lots of different places. I've got a physical inbox at home and one at work. The inbox at home has moved around a lot - from the office, to the kitchen, and finally to the ... laundry room. Yep, that's the way I come into the house, so its easy to drop the mail and other stuff in there when I get home. I've also used my phone as a voice recorder for stuff that comes up while I'm out and don't have access to a computer or notepad. Of course, I usually forget to go through my old recordings and do something with them, but its slightly better than not collecting it and just forgetting it.

On the computer, I've also gone through different ways of handling the inbox problem. For a while I sent myself an email (In Outlook 2003 hit Ctrl-Shift-M, type in my email address, type in subject, hit Alt-S), but this was clunky. But it's even clunkier to have to go to the inbox folder in Outlook and hit Ctrl-Shift-S for a new post. So eventually I just started hitting Ctrl-Shift-K for a new task. Pretty simple, not too clunky. I keep my next actions as tasks with categories (AtWork, AtHome, To Read, etc.) and so anything that was not categorized was in my "inbox". But then I had two inboxes in Outlook, my mail inbox and my tasks inbox. This just means more places to have things sit unlooked at if I'm not diligent about going through them.

So I've starting thinking of a new way to do the inbox based on the features described in Melissa MacBeth's Tasks and Time Management in Outlook blog. The basic idea is to use uncategorized tasks as my inbox. Then I can make all my mail into tasks by setting up a rule to flag incoming mail. Whenever I need to put my own ideas into the "inbox", I just hit Ctrl-Shift-K, type in the task, and hit Alt-S to save - really simple. Or just type it into the to-do bar. Now I only need one inbox. I can use my mail inbox as an archive area for stuff that's been dealt with. Archiving mail that I no longer need to track is as simple as clicking the flag on the item to mark it complete. Finally, I can use additional rules to make my inbox smarter about mail. For example, I can automatically file mail sent to certain distributions lists into my "To Read" category. Instead of showing up in my new inbox, they show up in my list of things to read, saving me the step of filing it there. That's a great place to put all my RSS posts.

There are quite a few cool benefits to this new "inbox". I can have my inbox always visible, if I want, by using the new To-Do Bar. If I combine that with tasks on the calendar, it becomes pretty easy to put everything I need to see into the calendar module with the to-do bar turned on. For real processing of the inbox I would still go to the tasks module so I could see flagged mail in the reading pane. Instead of living in the mail world, I now live in the tasks (and appointments) world, which just seems more right. What's important is what I need to do and where I need to go. Mail becomes just an easy, automatic way to get information into my system.