Posted in Opinion on October 25, 2016 12:23 pm EDT

Getting to Inbox Zero

How to create your own system for increased productivity -- something every busy AEC can use.









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By Cathy Hutchison

Do you ever feel like you are forgetting something? What happens when you forget? Do you like being prepared?

John West, director of technology for Halff Associates Inc. in Richardson, Texas, peppered a group of seasoned marketing professionals for design and construction firms with these questions. To be fair, most of us have a pretty good handle on the art of productivity—it’s how we got to where we are in our firms—but West was about to challenge us to level up.


There is a never ending flow of information that we have to manage. And it goes way beyond the e-mail sent to us: IM/SMS, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, receipts, lists, mail, physical drawings, notes, handouts and files. That doesn’t even include the information we generate ourselves such as observations and ideas.

We need a comprehensive system for managing the flow and because we each have different ways of thinking about things—there isn’t a single “right” system that fits everyone. West shares the best practices that can help everyone design their own system for personal productivity:

1. Work toward inbox zero, then stay there.

2. Gather regularly.

3. Refine your process.

4. Enjoy your efforts (because if it is too complex or feels like a chore, you will abandon the system).


If our inbox is bigger than just what we see in email, then inbox zero suddenly becomes a more daunting task. And—to be clear—it was already pretty daunting to begin with. The issue is that we deal with everything that comes into our sphere. And, there are some tools to help with that.

West shares that the majority of the stuff that comes to us should be deleted immediately. Whether you are unsubscribing from a newsletter, deleting a text, recycling physical junk mail or throwing out an unnecessary receipt, taking immediate action in clearing the unnecessary away gives us more mental space to focus on what is important.

But, there is an art to deleting. Personally, I have a rule set for my “deleted items” folder that keeps things inside of it for a year. It makes me a lot freer with the delete button and gives me the confidence that if I find I actually need it, I can get it back later. West uses the delete button for things he knows are unnecessary, but archives everything that might be useful.

West throws things that are waiting for response into a “follow up” folder and schedules whatever he needs to act on. West has used many apps. Currently the goto app is Todoist to schedule items with Wunderlist for shared list items. Other strategies can be the Outlook calendar, or a project management app like Wrike, Nozbe, Asana, or Trello. Many of the apps allow you to forward tasks in the form of an e-mail making it easy to schedule things on the fly. In addition, the Outlook app for Android and iOS has a snooze or “swipe left” feature which lets you automatically schedule an e-mail to reappear back in your inbox at a later predefined time.

West also recommends that if anything can be done in 5 minutes or less that we simply do it. It saves time in the long run by not having to look at the information multiple times making decisions about it again and again.


Just as important as dealing with the things people send us are our own ideas, observations, research and personal projects. Here are some popular strategies for gathering the information that matters most:

• Develop a personal journaling system such as the one described at

• Leverage a tool like Evernote or OneNote to bring information to a centralized location that is searchable.

• Try the Pocket app to stash things from the web to read later.

• Get in the habit of dealing with the paper that collects in wallets, purses or briefcases daily. If helpful, install a mobile scanner app such as Cam Scanner

to create electronic versions with your phone.

• Check out some of the list making apps such as Todoist, Wunderlist, Workflowy or Smartsheet to gain efficiencies with an electronic list system.  continued >>