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I recently took a trip down to San Diego to visit my good friend and former co-founder Stephen Johnson. We had a blast sharing startup stories and lessons learned since the RewardMe days. I've always managed my time well, but I've never taken time or work management to the next level by implementing the zero inbox methodology. I haven't fully studied it, but I understand the principles: make sure that you only have 1 inbox that dictates what work you will be doing. All channels should funnel into 1 distribution center, making it easy to understand your priorities and only focus on the most important tasks.

Stephen introduced me to OmniFocus, and after a few months of tweaking my work patterns, I can confidently tell you that I'm now more productive than ever. OmniFocus is very robust and can be customized to suit your individual work patterns and situation. This is how I use it.

Tools

  1. OmniFocus Pro for Mac: $79.99
  2. OmniFocus for iPhone: $19.99

Understanding my zero inbox methodology

To be clear, I haven't read the zero inbox methodology, but I understand the concept and have adapted it for my own use. You see, our attention is always split by many communication channels. At Bunny Inc alone, we use a multitude of channels to communicate with team members:

  1. Synchronous communication: Slack
  2. Asynchronous communication: Yammer
  3. Project management: Trello
  4. Email: Gmail

That's 4 different communication channels, each with its own unique purpose!

The goal: to make sure that the 4 communication channels are at zero inbox every day.

My methodology before Omnifocus

To understand how I've improved my work flow, it's important to understand how I used to get work done before OmniFocus.

Yammer

I batch my responses to Yammer, but when I found a thread that was very thoughtful and required a lot of my brain power (the very little that I do have), I would mark the thread as 'unread' and return back to the thread at a later time when I can devote 100% of my attention to it.

The challenge with this approach to Yammer is that quite often, important threads begin to pile up, and there is no clear method to distinguish or prioritize among threads. This lead to decision paralysis: which thread should I address first? It was quite common for me to ignore my Yammer inbox for days at a time because I didn't want to look at the number of unread threads, beckoning to take up my precious time.

Trello

I used Cards in Trello to manage 6 functions:

  1. Tasks Column: my to-do list, prioritized from top to bottom
  2. Cards to create Column: Cards that I needed to create to push to the product or engineering team
  3. Follow up Column: Yammer threads that I need to follow up with
  4. Pending Column: Cards that are pending input from other members of the team
  5. Engineering Column: Cards that are ready to push to engineering
  6. Design Column: Cards that are ready to push to design

I was organized, but I had many Columns and Cards vying for my attention. Though I kept the Cards within Columns organized by priority, the Columns themselves had no priority. Should I create a new Card for engineering, or should I finish an individual tasks? There was no clear way for me to distinguish priority among Columns.

Email

I'll admit that my email utilization is probably the best among all of the people I've worked with. Many of my teammates achieve an unread inbox of over 200 emails quite often, which I find unbelievable.

Though I viewed my email management as an asset, I still viewed my email inbox as yet another inbox, constantly sucking my time and attention.

I'd check my emails two times a day: morning and evening. If there was an email I could respond to in less than 5 minutes, then, I'd respond to it immediately. If it would take me more than 5 minutes to respond to the email, then there were two options to take:

  1. Urgent email: mark as unread and answer the email when I can devote my full attention to it at the end of the day
  2. Non-urgent email: mark as starred and answer the email sometime in the future when I have the time

Though my methodology was decent at best, I found myself drowning in starred emails that I would absolutely never get to. In fact, I had several emails that were starred that were originally sent to me over a year ago!

Slack

Though Slack is a synchronous communication channel, there are many instances when a conversation must be put on hold and addressed later. The challenge I've found with Slack is that there is no 'unread' button, which would allow me to come back to the conversation later; so instead, I used the 'Star' icon to highlight important messages to re-read and address at a better time.

I think you get the point: this lead to yet another inbox that I would have to check.

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As you can see, though I was very well organized, 4 inboxes were pulling my attention, making it difficult to clearly understand my priorities.

My current zero inbox methodology

It's actually quite simple:

  1. Work on my inboxes during allotted batches of time:
    • If it takes me less than 5 minutes to take action, then take action immediately
    • If it takes me more than 5 minutes to take action, then send to Omnifocus
  2. All to-do's go to one centralized inbox: Omnifocus
  3. At the end of the day, prioritize and assign deferred dates to items in the inbox
  4. Work on the tasks that are available on that day

And that's it.

Omnifocus set up

Today Perspective

today-perspective-2
today-perspective-2

I set up a Perspective (available with the Pro version of Omnifocus) to display ONLY the tasks that are available today, that are unassigned, or that are past due.

I know that these tasks are my priority, and I start the day by working on each one.

Inbox Perspective

omnifocus-inbox
omnifocus-inbox

Every evening, before leaving the office, I create deferred dates for items in my inbox.

Deferred dates are the reason I love Omnifocus so much. While most task managers allow you to set due dates, I've seen few that do deferred dates correctly. Deferred dates allow you to set a time in which the task is available. This is great because you don't have to think about the task until you're ready to get it done.

This by itself is reason enough to use Omnifocus. By deferring tasks to a later date, and thereby allowing my mind to stay clear and only focus on what is important right now, I've been able to get more high quality work done.

Shortcuts to zero inbox

If it takes less than 5 minutes to take action, then I take action.

If it takes more than 5 minutes to take action, then I use shortcuts to send it to Omnifocus.

control+option+spacebar: quick task creation

quick creation
quick creation

Whenever there is a new task, I quickly hit option+command+spacebar to pull up the quick insert shortcut and create the task. I assign it to a project (when relevant), but usually do not defer it. I wait until the end of the day to assign defer or due dates.

control+option+i: quick task highlight insert

yammer-omnifocus
yammer-omnifocus

I can quickly highlight a phrase or URL and hit control+option+i to create a quick task that links to the web page where I highlighted the phrase. I use this everyday to easily set my Yammer inbox to zero and defer dates for responses.

email forwarding: quick task creation from emails

email-forwarding-2
email-forwarding-2

For emails that take me longer than 5 minutes to respond to, I immediately forward it to my Omnifocus email address to create a task to follow up to the email. It's been the most effective way for me to manage my email inbox and get it down to zero every day.

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This is the core of my methodology. Yes I have further tweaked Omnifocus with my Project and Context customization, but that's extra. I'll leave it up to you to figure out the best way for you to make the plethora of the features in Omnifocus to work for you.

If you focus on my core methodology which I list above, I promise that you'll get to zero inbox and have a wonderful, productive work life.

How do you use Omnifocus? I'd love it if you shared your getting work done secrets with us.