Thinking About Inputs

Mike Janssen
Mike Janssen
Thinking About Inputs

An effective personal productivity system is all about having a plan for your stuff, defined broadly. This implies that it's not just about managing a few to-do lists. Instead, you need a plan for what to do when a thing enters your life.

Following on Cal Newport's essay in The New Yorker on the failure of GTD, as well as a recent episode of the Focused podcast, I've been thinking about my own inputs. For our puposes here, let's define an input as

a means by which stuff enters your life

Recall that part of Newport's thesis (and, I expect, his upcoming book on email) is that personal productivity systems do not address the root cause of inputs, namely that they too easily and haphazardly appear in our lives, sent by others, with the expectation that we'll do something with them. The definition above is intentionally broad, but taking careful stock of the ways in which you let things into your life, and what you do with them afterward, is necessary if you ever want some sense of control over them. Of course, so long as we allow others to send us work unsolicited, we'll never have complete control over them, but with some careful planning it is possible ot make progress on the problem of controlling inputs. Below I describe the professional inputs I have, as well as my methods for processing each.

Electronic Communication

Much of what I do is digital. I've tried analog productivity systems, and while they are fun and satisfying at times, a purely analog approach falls spectacularly at the problem of wrangling digital inputs.

The primary (and arguably only) digital input in my professional life is email. (Our department also uses Teams for collaboration and shared file storage, but outside of set work times, I only check Teams when I get an email telling me there's something I need to deal with.) Any knowledge work in 2021 needs a strategy for dealing with email. Here's mine.

Checking Email

Never work with your email client open unless you are actively processing your email, and make sure your email notifications are minimal; disable them if possible. Instead, identify 1-2 (or as few as you can get away with) times per day that you'll check your email, and close it as soon as you're done processing. The strategy I've been piloting this semester has been to open my email client when I get into the office and deal with any emergencies. Then I close it until later in the day and process everything still there (emergencies and otherwise).

Processing Email

This is the big one. When you open your email client and are confronted by a list of new messages in your inbox, what do you do? I walk through the following checklist.

  • Does this email require a response?
    • If it does and you can respond in less than two minutes, do so immediately.
    • If it does but you need more time, leave it where it is and come back to it once you've gone through your inbox. Alternatively, send it to your task management system and come back to it later.
  • If it does not require a response, then what kind of email is it?
    • If the email contains information you'd like to refer to later, save it (or better: a link directly to it) in your personal reference system.
    • If it doesn't require a response, and doesn't have any information you need for later, its ultimate destination is the trash. Read it if you want, but I'm guessing you have better things to do.

Of course, you can layer additional complexity on this as fits your needs. But this general approach has worked well for me. For instance, it's been many years since I've used rules to automatically filter emails into various folders. I essentially use my Inbox, Archive, Junk, and Trash, and then rely on search to find things in a pinch.

Physical Communication

This is perhaps an underdeveloped aspect of my current strategy for inputs. In this group I'd include both physical objects that enter my life (mail, exams/quizzes to grade, etc) as well as inputs that arise out of books I'm reading, or meetings and conversations with others. However, aside from occasionally having to deal with a physical object, the analog strategy is pretty similar to the digital strategy.

  • Question: Is this input a thing to do or a thing to remember?
    • If it's a thing to do and I can do it in less than two minutes, do it now.
    • If it's a thing to do and will take longer, record the need for doing it in Omnifocus (my task management app)
    • If it's a thing to remember, record it it in the Daily Note of my personal reference system (currently Roam Research; more on that in a different post).
    • Note that either way, processing the input could include scanning the it and uploading the file.
  • If I'm ever unsure, the thing typically goes into Omnifocus, as it's a little easier to quickly capture. Either way, I review both my Omnifocus inbox as well as my Roam Daily Note at the beginning and end of each day, and make sure to refile anything at that time.

Physical papers that need processing (e.g., quizzes to grade) go in a class-specific intray in a cabinet until I'm ready to deal with them; they are already in Omnifocus as tasks, so I trust they will be graded even when I can't see them.


So that's an overview of how I try to wrangle my professional inputs. Is there anything I've overlooked? Any strategies you have? Feel free to send me an email (or reply to this one) if you think of something or have any questions. And if you'd like to get this as an email, consider a free subscription!

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