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The Inbox & Waitlist - Uncluttering Your Mind

Pink background with overlay of open mailbox. Credit: Rinck Content Studio


I spent years obsessing over the organization and classification of the items on my to-do list. It wasn't until I discovered two methods, the inbox and the waitlist, that I could cut through the noise in my head and get things done.

Too much information

As someone working at a large company, I often find myself working across backlogs, multiple product visions, and against competing priorities. It's easy for another project to come along that's more important and continuously pushing others further and further into the future.

Another struggle is the consistent context switching that comes along with the job. I used to find myself with a flood of tasks and ideas but no idea where to start.

As a way to find my way through the mess, I've tried every project management tool under the sun. Usually, I'd stick with a system for a few weeks before becoming inevitably frustrated and unproductive. I soon realized that it wasn't the tool I was using but how I was processing information.

Once this clicked, wading through the onslaught of information became a lot easier. I became more productive and reliable. Projects I was working on no longer felt stalled out, and I gained the mental clarity and focused work I was seeking.

How'd I get this point? 2 simple tricks — the inbox and the waitlist.

A place to put things

For a long time, I wanted to take every piece of information that I consumed daily and perfectly catalog it with tags, labels, due dates, etc. I'd exit a meeting with a set of to-dos that I'd carefully organize in a piece of software or send in a follow-up email.

I quickly realized that my obsession for organization brought me more frustration than the work itself. I'd constantly change the names of labels and projects to the point where work wasn't getting done. Instead, I was regularly shuffling tasks around the list under a different name or project. It was the equivalent of pushing food around on my plate to make it look like I'd eaten some.

In comes "The Inbox." Late in my journey with project management tools, I discovered Omni Focus. This powerful tool felt at the time like the perfect mashup of customization and process to help me manage the multiple parallel projects on my plate. I quickly discovered that all the knobs and buttons introduced a steep learning curve compared to the pencil and paper to-do lists I had used in the past.

Naturally, I went searching for a tutorial or training to understand how others used this tool successfully. It was in one of these videos that I discovered inboxing.

The idea is to clear your head so you can focus on what's essential at the moment. Most of us have ideas popping into our heads throughout the day. Next time you have an idea, write it down somewhere but don't assign it to any project or label it in any way. Just get it out of your head onto a piece of paper or in your favorite digital tool. By the end of the day, you might have a long list of things in your inbox. Unless something has a hard deadline, it's okay to leave it until tomorrow.

For me, I generally spend the first hour of my morning sorting my inbox into appropriate buckets and assigning priority in addition to answering any pressing emails or instant messages. I use this daily process to feel organized and defeat the uncertainty or restlessness I used to feel looking at my task list. It lets me focus on the task at hand without feeling like I'm going to miss something.

A time fill for those awkward times between meetings

Another thing you may find difficult in working at a large company is staying on top of the people and projects you're waiting on so you can get your work done. Much of my day-to-day work is communicating and influencing instead of checking more tactical items off a list. With so many projects swirling at any moment, it's hard to remember what I asked someone for or what step we're on in the process.

The waitlist is the critical piece of my toolkit I use to solve this problem.

Every time I ask someone for something, I write it down on my waitlist. Now, I have a nice place to come back to when someone asks for an update on a project's status or what is blocking my progress on an initiative.

When I only have 15 minutes between meetings, and I don't want to start anything new, I break out my waitlist and follow-up where it makes sense. My waitlist is also a great place to look when I'm unsure what to work on next.

A gentle reminder to keep projects moving

For your peers, your waitlist helps them be more consistent too. We're all tracking and prioritizing things differently. Your priorities may be different from theirs, and that's okay. By having your waitlist to reference, you can gently nudge your peers to provide an update or a deliverable that you're waiting on to move one of your objectives forward.

Paint a better picture of roadblocks

The waitlist will do more than enabling you to stay on top of what you're waiting on from others and be a better collaborator. It can paint a clear picture for yourself and your manager of any consistent bottlenecks your work faces.

Is your entire waitlist dependent on a single person or department? Are you asking for something available as a self-service resource? These are questions a waitlist can answer for you.

You don't need another project management tool

Two additions to your workflow can help you dramatically reduce the noise rattling around in your head — the inbox and the waitlist. To take more control over your thoughts and get more done:

Force yourself to file away new ideas immediately as they surface rather than holding on to them.  Keep track of who and what you're waiting on to take action.

The more you commit to these ideas, the more clear-headed and able to focus you'll feel. And believe it or not, you'll get more done.