Life hacks, personal productivity and the quest for Inbox Zero

1 November 2007

My quest for Inbox Zero – that state of e-mail grace in which you`ve emptied your inbox and manage to keep it so – started in 2004 with a visit to a newish blog attracting attention the way a black hole attracts just about everything beyond the event horizon. was set up by the improbably named Merlin Mann to chart his progress in implementing a personal productivity system gaining ground in corporate America.

Its creator, David Allen, drew upon years of management consultancy to develop his Getting Things Done (GTD) system, explained in detail in the eponymous book, subtitled The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

The system rests on a few key actions that Allen likens to freeing up the RAM of your mind, so that instead of constantly trying to remember what it is you should be doing, you have the luxury of approaching your work with a “mind like water”, that is, a mental state that flows naturally to fit the needs of the present moment.

GTD begins with capturing anything that needs your attention, evaluating the collection item by item, defining each item`s desired outcomes and the next actions to achieving them; organising reminders and information that will be relevant in the context that you need them (example, @office, @shops) and finally, keeping current of your projects with frequent reviews of the commitments you`ve made to others and to yourself.

Mann quickly realised that Allen`s @computer context just wasn`t going to cut it for people whose entire lives are spent there, so he started making little tweaks to systems and processes that allow you to achieve greater outcomes with less effort; a process the British tech writer and latter-day EFF evangelist, Danny O`Brien, coined in 2004 as a life hack.

GTD was mainly targeted at managers in a corporate environment, but geeks, led by the intrepid Mann, wasted no time in running with it as fast as their pizza-stuffed legs would allow.

Like any self-respecting cult, the personal productivity gang has developed its own language and toolsets. You know you`re suffering from evaluation analysis paralysis the next time you find yourself consulting your Hipster PDA pondering the best way to shave a yak, or expending ludicrous amounts of energy refactoring your system for optimal productivity (without actually completing any of your to-dos).

Oh, the yak thing? For Ren & Stimpy fans, ‘nuff said. For everyone else, the Jargon File defines it as: “Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem, which solves a problem that, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you`re working on.” If that sounds like a familiar scenario, join us and lay down your yak razors today.