How to Keep on Top of All Your Inboxes’

How to Keep on Top of All Your ‘Inboxes’ [PMP #187]

In the last 10 years, the number of apps the average knowledge worker uses to do their work has exploded.

After a quick Google search, I found a 2017 study by that discovered that the average number of apps used by the modern knowledge worker is 9.39. And most people have between 5 and 9 work-related apps open at any one time.

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And a lot of these apps come with ‘inboxes’ i.e. places you have to check to see what changed the last time you used the app. When you stop and think about it, so much of our day is spent checking these inboxes:

  • Email – This is our main inbox and probably where the average person spends most of their time.
  • SMS – A lot of us use SMS or WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues and customers.
  • Task management – Apps like Asana, Notion and Basecamp have inboxes or notification screens to show you what’s changed since you last checked the app.
  • Chat Apps – Then we have chat apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Chat, Facebook Messenger or Skype that we use for instant messaging.
  • Forums – If you participate in any forums (for example, I’m a part of the Asana and Pipedrive community forums) these apps will bug you from time to time.
  • Social apps – And of course, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn Instagram and Reddit (etc) all have notification tabs and inboxes to check as well.

The solution is to try and use one app for everything. But in practice, this isn’t really possible.

For example, if I’m talking to my wife, I’ll use Messages on the iPhone. I have a group thread in Messages with my brothers and some friends. But because other friends don’t have iPhones, we have to use Facebook messenger. And then I have to use WhatsApp for my Android friends. It’s too much!

Then I get to work and I have to check my email. I use Asana to manage my VA and work with certain clients. I manage a Slack group where I engage with customers. A contractor I’m working with has invited me to Notion. And occasionally I’ll be working with a client in a Google Doc.

So, how do you keep up with all these inboxes?

Below I’ve listed some of the principles that have helped me to filter through the noise and make sense of all these updates.

Reduce where you can

Before you do anything, work out which apps you can cut out of your life or reduce your usage of. The fewer inboxes and apps you have to check, the better.

For example, I sometimes get inquiries for work through Facebook Messenger and even Instagram. Rather than having conversations in these apps and having to follow up with leads all over the place, I explain that I only use these apps for personal relationships and instead ask everyone to go through the same channel by booking a call on my website. I do the same with LinkedIn. Even though it’s a professional network, I try and direct all inbound inquires to one system.

And if there’s an app you can avoid using altogether, great. I’ve worked with clients who have their team using very similar tools, like Asana and Trello, for different things. If possible, consolidating your work into fewer tools is probably going to be better.

Decide HOW and WHEN to use each channel

Next, you need to establish some boundaries around how and when to use each of these tools.

As mentioned above, I use Facebook Messenger and Instagram for personal communication with friends and family. I communicate with clients via email 90% of the time and occasionally via Slack or Asana.

If you use a project management tool like Asana and an instant messaging tool like Slack, decide when each should be used. I usually advise that all task or project-based communication should go into Asana. Whereas Slack should be used for real-time communication and throw away chit chat.

What you want to avoid is a situation where a conversation starts on one platform like Slack and then someone follows up a few days later in another tool like Asana.

There should be clear rules about when to use each channel and these rules should be communicated to your team, customers or clients. For example, clients know that the best way to reach me is via email and that they’ll almost always get a reply within a few hours. But if they need to, they can call me on the phone for urgent matters (this almost never happens).

Decide how often you need to check each channel

With a sense of priority between each tool, next, you should decide how often you need to check each of them.

Here are my guidelines (obviously these may change depending on the work you do):

  1. Email – Most people should check email every few hours (but I know a lot of people often check a lot more).
  2. Project management – My general rule is to check tools like Asana, Basecamp or Notion once a day so that you’re keeping up to date. But you may check even more often if your team are heavy users of the tool.
  3. Chat – With tools like Slack or MS Teams, multiple conversations are often taking place. I usually check my Slack group once or twice a day to see what’s being discussed and reply to any threads.

Other tools you may not need to check at all:

  • Forums – As a participant on the Asana community forum, I don't actively check my inbox here. Instead, I get an email if someone responds to a thread or asks me a private message.
  • SMS – SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger don’t need to be ‘checked’. They usually just alert you as soon as there’s something new (unless you dial down the notifications).

Again, make sure your colleagues or clients know how often these tools are being checked so that expectations around when to receive a reply are clearly set.

Decide how quickly you need to respond within each channel

Often we feel pressure to respond to messages right away but I think the expectations should be different depending on the channel.

In my personal and work life, there’s really only one way to get me to respond right away and that’s to call me. But even then, I don't always answer.

Here are my guidelines for how quickly to respond within each channel (obviously these may change depending on the work you do):

  1. Email – I aim to respond within a few hours most days (except during weekends where replies have to wait until Monday). This may be different for you If you have a demanding boss or clients.
  2. Project management – With Asana, Basecamp or Notion, the goal is to respond within a day. These tools are generally more asynchronous and urgent updates or requests should go through other channels.
  3. SMS and Chat – If you receive a message via SMS, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack etc. you should aim to respond within a few hours. Often there’s an expectation to reply right away but even with chat, I think a little lead time is reasonable. In fact, while I’m working, I’ll usually ignore all messages from these channels (unless they’re really important). Then I’ll go through them all over lunch or when I get home.

Get your notifications under control

The final step is to get your notification settings under control.

Whenever you sign up to a new app or service, the default is usually to have push notifications on your phone or computer and(or) email updates turned on.

I now try and do the opposite.

I default most notifications to off. This way, I get to check the app when it suits me rather than the app being able to interrupt me at will.

Here’s how I’ve set up my notifications:

  • Email – Onscreen notifications and sounds are turned off on the phone and computer. The only notification I have is the app badge on the Mac.
  • Messages – Onscreen notifications and sounds turned on. Because I use Messages to communicate with friends and family, I like having these on.
  • Asana – No notifications. I just check the inbox when I want throughout the day.
  • Slack – Slack has some interesting notification options where you can get notified if someone mentions your name. But I’ve defaulted everything to off except the app badge.
  • Facebook Messenger – Onscreen notifications and sounds are turned off. The only notification I have is the app badge on my phone.
  • Twitter and Instagram – No notifications at all. I check each of them when I want to throughout the day.
  • YouTube comments and LinkedIn messages – No notifications. I check each once a week.
  • Other services – For apps like Google Docs or the community forums I simply get an email when someone messages me.

As you can see, I’ve defaulted most things to off and instead use the app badges as a subtle way to see if there’s something new in an app without getting pinged throughout the day.

Now the above guidelines are far from perfect and you’ll want to take what I’ve said with a grain of salt as you customise your own approach.

I’d love it if everyone could use one SMS service and everyone just used Asana instead of email. But that isn’t the world we live in (nor is it going to be).

So for now, the best we can do is set rules, communicate expectations and restrict notifications to make each of these systems a little less overwhelming.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any comments or feedback down below!