My Front Lawn is an Inbox

by Mike Shea on 28 July 2008

Three weeks ago I went to throw out our trash and realized someone had put out a half-sized refrigerator in the community space in front of our townhouse. I narrowed my eyes at it but promptly forgot about it when I went off to work. When I got home, our trash was there but the fridge remained. Of course they didn't take it, its full of freon. So now I watched it sit there for three more days, past the time of the next trash pickup. It wouldn't have bothered me if it was a block away but it sat right in front of our house. Everyone who went by would think it was ours. And worse, given our HOA, its unlikely anyone would bother to take care of it.

So now I had to do something about it. What was my goal? What was my next action? What could I do to get this thing out of my life?

Imagine we live in a sphere both physical and mental. Our lives exist within this sphere. Our friends, our loved ones, our families, our stuff, our homes, our jobs; all of it exists within this bubble. Anything that can reach in and drop off stuff in that sphere is now an input source. It might be a new task at work. It might be a bill. It might be some jackass leaving a fridge on your lawn.

That refrigerator was a new project, whether I wanted it or not, and my front lawn had now become a new inbox. I came up with a clear project goal (get rid of the stupid fridge), and a next action (bitch to my HOA). Eventually, about two weeks before my HOA got back to me, the people who put it out there called some folks and they took it away. In the end, someone else had cleared my inbox. It remained a good example of how things can fall into your world and require your own effort to get them back out again.

There is no part of the "Getting Things Done" system more important than the inbox. Being able to collect, process, organize, review, and do is fully dependent on receiving new stuff correctly in the first place. Understanding, organizing, and correctly using ones inboxes is critical to the smooth behavior of the rest of the system.

We typically think of inboxes with a narrow focus. My email is an inbox. My mailbox at work is an inbox. The little wire mesh basket where my wife puts stuff - that's an inbox. But what about widening that focus? What if we consider any source where we could possibly receive a next action as an inbox? Now my boss becomes an inbox. My telephone becomes an inbox. Hell, I'm surrounded by inboxes. Yes, even my front lawn became an inbox.

"If you want to get more done, do less," David Allen once said.

The easiest way to get control over something is to eliminate it. One of the best ways to get control over all of those inputs in our lives is to cut the inputs out that we don't really need. Does the input directly benefit your life? Does it make you happy? Is it truly necessary? If not, what about cutting it out? What about narrowing the tube so less comes in?

Many times we have little control over this inbox. Our obligations to family, our requirements to make a living, and yes, even the community space in front of our townhouse; all of these are required for our lives. But what about all those sources of actions that don't really matter? What about those obligations we feel we have to fulfill but really have no impact on our lives? What about that website we still maintain for the tens of users who still read it? What about volunteer service we do that fills us with dread when it comes up? What about that favor we keep giving the same neighbor?

Eliminate unneeded inboxes. This alone can reduce dependencies on your time and help you focus on the things that are directly important to your life. If you are over-obligated, you're not going to do a good job at the things you really should or really want to be doing.

Getting control over your inboxes will feed well into the whole rest of a good personal organization system. Control the inputs and you control the flow.

Controlling your inboxes can make you more productive, more responsive, and happier.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.