My method for keeping an inbox in check enough that it periodically hits a zero point relies heavily on having a second system in which to store bits of work in progress. In my case this is a private Github issue store which has now over 6900 issues in it, about 6800 of which have been closed.
There’s not magic to this approach, other than relentless use of Github’s flexible issues management tool. If it’s good enough to keep a massive, messy software development project going, it should be enough to help you sort out and prioritize nearly anything else. It does help to be systematic at scale, and I’ve found that I’ve had to adjust what sorts of labels and milestones to use several times as I got better with the system.
Step one is to admit you have a problem. There are many more things that you want to do than there is time, energy, focus and money to take on. Some issues are going to sit in your issue list for a very long time. That’s OK. The Github store is not just about ruthlessly closing tickets (though that’s OK to do in moderation) but also about keeping a whole range of possibilities in mind for what might happen next. Keeping a few stretch goals in your milestones isn’t all bad.
Step two is to realize that your inbox makes a lousy todo list, and to get things out of the inbox after they have been read and ruminated on. You can always go back and look for details, but it’s no fun to have months old mail hanging around begging for an answer. People have an inordinate respect for the courtesy of a rapid response. If you can, do something quickly that acknowleges a message, even if it’s only to say that you’re not able to take it on this instant.
Step three is to be methodical in the inbox purge. I use three steps: one to read everything; a second to use Gmail’s “star” system to mark those that won’t be immediately addressed; and finally to remove the star and move to Github when it’s time to clean up. When the rain of starry messages is too heavy, I use the “yesterbox” technique to prioritize yesterday’s mail over today’s.
Is this system solid? No. There are things not captured in it, tasks that have to be done that are not written down, and things from years ago unfinished. But I have a system, and the system occasionally hits a zero point, and that zero point gives me enough energy and enthusiasm and confidence in my abilities that I can crank out a blog post every so often. Without this system, the blog would be empty.