The single inbox philosophy

The single inbox system is not a new system. And many people already use this system, perhaps inadvertently, with their Gmail and Google Photos apps


Declutter your life by maintaining a single list or inbox. Photo: iStock
Declutter your life by maintaining a single list or inbox. Photo: iStock

Recently I was engaged in conversation with a young woman eager to dabble in journalism. I am always happy to help people interested in trying out the writer’s vocations: books, blogposts, journalism, columns and so on. Not so much because I am some kind of literary giant. But because many of the tips and tricks I have picked up over the years in this job are fairly basic things that can help many people eager to write more and better. Things that I picked up much too late in my career.

For instance, the most basic tip is this: To write better, read more. Please note that I did not say read better. Read all kinds of things. All kinds of genres. Read both airport best-sellers and critically acclaimed works. Read everything because you never know what kinds of styles and devices will stay with you and become a part of your own style. And even when you aspire in a particular genre—travel, comedy, crime—it is really quite astonishing how much variety there is within these genres themselves. I suspect “read more” is not a very popular tip to receive. Aspiring writers are impatient to produce. Who has the time to consume?

Another question I am asked very frequently is how I record things. How do I take down ideas? Record observations? Make notes? At first glance this seems like an old-fashioned question. Who has trouble recording things these days? Everyone has a phone. And every phone comes with a nearly limitless choice of apps that can record things. So why ask me?

In fact, I think, it is this abundance of choice that confuses people. What does an aspiring writer use? Evernote? Google Keep? Zoho Notebook? Or just a plain old Moleskine Notebook and a pen or pencil? Try googling it and things get even more confusing. Do you use Evernote with or without tags? Do you use the Bullet Journal system or the Cornell Note-Taking System?

The rabbit hole is very deep and very confusing.

In this week’s column I am not going to tell you exactly what to do. But I will share a philosophy of recording things that might prove useful in many walks of life.

And that philosophy is this: the single inbox system. This is not a new system. In fact, I first came across this system in an Evernote tutorial. And many people already use this system, perhaps inadvertently, with their Gmail and Google Photos apps (Google, perhaps by design, tends to build single-inbox-friendly systems).

So the idea is this: Dump everything into one receptacle that can be searched through quickly. Only use classification systems—tags, folders, colour-coding—if you really, really have to. Depend, instead, on the powerful search abilities that most apps have these days. All you should be doing is recording. And filing away. Safe in the knowledge that you can always retrieve quickly later. This makes the process of recording ideas friction-free.

Suddenly struck by an idea for the next chapter of your book while commuting on the Metro? Perhaps you are tempted by this super-organized process: Open Evernote, open the Book Projects stack, then open the Latest Book Notebook, then open a new note, record your idea, and then tag it with “Chapter Ideas”.

Very, very few people have the wherewithal to follow a system like this with discipline. Instead, learn to record your ideas in a single inbox. Filter or sort things out later. Remember: Your goal is to record your ideas. Avoiding a mess is a secondary goal.

I use the single inbox approach for almost everything. All my email is saved in one big Archive folder. I rarely tag or folder anything. And I rarely find myself unable to find exactly the old email I want. Gmail search is pretty good. My note-taking usually takes place in one of two places. Either I send emails to myself with notes in them. Or I write them down in a physical notebook with a pen. I use Google Keep only when I want a list—shopping or household chores—that I want to share with my significant other. I also maintain a Trello board with my team on Mint On Sunday. All our ideas for Mint On Sunday stories—every single one of them, including pitches from writers—go into a Trello Inbox. These could be entire essays or one-line ideas. They all go into one dump. From which we pick and escalate ideas through other folders titled “In Editing”, “Finalized”, “This Issue” and “Published”. These folders are managed with great care. But the Inbox is allowed to proliferate as needed, with very little pruning.

I use a modified Bullet Journal system for my physical notebook. Once again my focus here has been on making the “first input” process as easy as possible. So I just write things down when they occur to me. Some people go to great lengths to have an elaborate system of tags and folders and sections and sub-sections for their Bullet Journal. This simply does not work for me. Instead, I need a system where I can capture lots of ideas, track them, execute them, postpone them for later, or just ignore them. And that forms the basis of my protocol.

The central point of all these systems is to take the pressure off the brain. The moment you ask the brain to remember five ideas for a great movie script or a book idea, it is going to get sluggish and clumsy. Instead, record things in your Universal Dump right away. Sort things out later. Use your brain to solve problems, not keep track of them.

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