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How to Stop Multi-Tasking and Actually Get Things Done

Luke is a workflow management coach with an MBA in business management.


Tell me if this story sounds familiar:

Mother: “Honey, can you pick up the kids from school today?

Father: “Sure, let me check my schedule. I’m sure I can take that meeting on the road. Oh, man, am I prepared for that? I don’t think I added my notes to that presentation. I think I still need to follow up with the data team to get that report for it. I really need to ask Linda how she wants to approach them. Maybe I should send her a quick message. I hope she doesn’t mention the memo from this morning; I still need to read that.”

Have you ever fallen into that thought process? Most of us have. Do you know the one thing that’s missing? The father never got around to answering the mother.

The Inbox

In the book Getting Things Done, David Allen speaks at length about the use of an inbox. Unfortunately, most of us still don’t understand what it is or how to leverage it. Too many of us still use our inbox(es) as an all-encompassing “to-do list.”

If you need to scroll down to see the bottom of your email inbox, then I’m speaking to you. There is no reason that a task should stay in your inbox for more than a day. If that seems far-fetched, then you do not understand the purpose of an inbox or the proper cue to remove something from the inbox to the task list.

What Is an Inbox?

Your inbox is nothing more than a gathering place for all of your incoming tasks. In this era of technology, most of us have multiple inboxes: Our work email, home email, text messages, verbal communications, IMs, etc.

Our lifestyles for us to be pulled in many directions, switching between tasks just to keep up with what all is coming towards us. In the GTD (Getting Things Done) method, our goal is to re-direct all of that incoming information into one place.

Why Do We Need an Inbox?

Working in the modern world, we have learned that multi-tasking kills productivity. Switching between tasks causes us to lose about 20% of our efficiency. The Project Management Institute holds that if a worker is dedicated to two projects, meaning 50% dedication towards each, they do not produce 50% of their capabilities towards each project. Instead, they accomplish between 20–40%. The diminished rate of productivity increases exponentially for every additional task.

If you have information coming at you from five different sources, then you are essentially multitasking across five different tasks just to receive the tasks, let alone categorize, prioritize, and work on them. A single inbox will remove this loss of productivity.

How to Manage an Inbox

To reap the benefits of an inbox, you must follow two basic principles: inflow management and outflow management.

Inflow Management

Simply put, learn to re-direct every task to your inbox. Let’s use the common example of your work email. Ideally, you would like if everyone who wanted anything from you would send it in a nice orderly email. Obviously, that doesn’t happen, but you can forward it.

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If you get a text messages asking you to complete a task, take a screenshot and email it to yourself. If you’re in a meeting where you have to take paper notes, scan your notes or take a picture of them on your phone and email it to yourself. If someone drops by your office and gives you a task, quickly type it into an email to yourself.

Regardless of where the information is coming from, find a way to convert it into one format, then remove it from everywhere else. You don’t need a post-it note on your monitor if the note is in your inbox. You don’t need to keep those handwritten notes on your desk if you’ve scanned them into your email. Put the notebook in a drawer. When you do this, it means you can focus 100% of your mind onto one list instead of 20% of your mind on multiple lists.

One note of exception, if an incoming task takes less than two minutes, it is often more efficient to simply accomplish it immediately. Just remember that if it begins to take longer than two minutes, there is nothing wrong with documenting how far you got and then sending it to your inbox.


Outflow Management

The second step deals with organizing, prioritizing, and scheduling your work. Now that you’ve managed to move all of your tasks to one easy-to-read list, it’s time to act on that list.

If you’re visualizing your tasks all in one place, you’re probably imagining something similar to the Star Wars intro, a scrolling list that seems to go on for infinity. That would be overwhelming, but the purpose of the inbox is to increase efficiency by removing the negative effects of multi-tasking.


Once we have this list, we can go through it line by line and put it in the proper place. The key here is to place the task where you trust that you will find it when you need it and not before. You don’t want to see the task reminder until it is time to act on that task. For most tasks, the easiest way to do this is to create a calendar reminder for the day/time you want to work on it.

Going back to the example of using a work email as your inbox, the simplest way to accomplish this is to attach the email to your calendar invite. If you sent yourself an email to remember to pick the kids up from school after work on Friday, set a calendar reminder for Friday an hour before you get off and attach the email you sent to yourself. Then you can remove that email from your inbox.

Is there a project you need to brainstorm on but never seem to have the time for? Schedule time on your calendar, attach the email you sent to yourself about the task and mark yourself busy. This way you’ll be able to actually focus on that project without disruption. Use this same strategy for tasks that don’t necessarily have a deadline but are still on your to-do list.

Do this process at least once a day. At first, it will take time but once the process becomes written, you will usually only spend about five minutes at the end of the day scheduling all the activities that need your attention.

Again, the key is to have a trusted place, like a calendar reminder, that you can put the task and know that you will have it in front of you when you need to see it but not when you don’t so that it doesn’t distract you.

The End Result

After a few weeks of practicing this, you should find that your inbox is shorter than ever. You will not have more than one days worth of incoming tasks on your list. Furthermore, you’ll find that you can actually focus on tasks at the appropriate time, and you’ll be better at it due to the lack of distractions. By spending ten minutes at the end of your day, your efficiency can increase exponentially.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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