If you're feeling overstretched, at work or at home, let me make a suggestion: you need more inboxes in your life. I'm aware that this may strike you as the delusional ramblings of (to use the neuroscientific term) a wrong 'un. Isn't your existing inbox already overstuffed with emails? Who needs more of that? But I mean it. I've felt this way ever since installing Evernote, an app that's been called an "everything bucket", into which I fling all manner of electronic clutter: articles to read later, thoughts jotted down in text files, photos I take on my phone. These all accumulate in my Evernote inbox. Then, once or twice a week, I spend half an hour clearing it out: filing things, reading others, deleting rubbish. If this sounds like pointless bother, let me blow your mind: your life's already full of inboxes. You just don't realise it yet. And it can be surprisingly liberating once you do.
Define an "inbox" as any place where stuff mounts up, needing – or claiming to need – your attention. (The godfather of modern productivity advice, David Allen, to whom this theory owes much, calls them "collection buckets".) Your email inbox isn't your only inbox. Your voicemail's an inbox. So is that pile of bank statements, batteries and solitary socks that's teetering on the arm of the sofa. So are the dirty dishes in the sink, stacking up until someone loads the dishwasher. So's the basket of clean laundry, waiting to be folded or ironed and put away. At first, the realisation that inboxes are everywhere is alarming: you're liable to feel like the only normal human in a zombie movie, as it dawns on you that you're surrounded by the living dead. Really, though, it's good news. Start treating all these inboxes as inboxes – visiting them intermittently, and dealing with what's in them – and they won't weigh on your mind at other times.
This, by the way, is the real value of the much-misunderstood email system known as Inbox Zero. The idea isn't to spend all day waiting to pounce on every new message, fixating on keeping things pristine. It's the opposite: build the habit of regularly emptying an inbox, and you can spend most of the day not thinking about it. It's when you don't take this approach that stress arises: every incoming item demands attention now. Which is why it's worth considering actively creating more inboxes. At home, if you don't already, nominate one surface as the zone for Stuff That Needs Dealing With; dump stray items or papers there; every so often, process it. Travelling for work? Throw every ticket, receipt and Post-it you acquire into a folder; back home, go through it.
Not every place where stuff accumulates is best thought of as an inbox. To use another metaphor, some are "streams", to be dipped into, with no pressure to deal with everything. Facebook and Twitter are streams: follow a few hundred people on Twitter and you'll go crazy if you try to read all they post. Likewise most print media. You can think of your laundry basket that way, too, if you don't mind picking out clothes as you need them. Don't define something as an inbox if you can treat it as a stream. But if it is an inbox, dedicate regular time to clearing it. Fun? No. But that's the point: you can have fun the rest of the time.