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A vat with a lot of liquid flowing in and a trickle flowing out

If you’re a fan of Mark Forster (as we certainly are) then this whole post amounts to giving a name — “redqueening” — to step 2 of his Backlog Method, which I summarize like so: (1) Isolate your backlog, (2) make sure you’re redqueening and not feeding that backlog, and (3) (bee)mind the backlog.

There’s a super obvious fact of fluid dynamics that I tend to delude myself about when, instead of fluids in pipes and reservoirs, it’s things like emails in my inbox. Let me state the email version of it: Consider the subset of incoming emails that you truly must deal with. If those urgent/important emails enter your inbox at an average rate higher than the average rate you deal with them, then you are super screwed.

What does “truly must deal with” mean?

This is in a sidebar because it’s orthogonal to the rest of the post. We can assume you have some way to separate wheat from chaff. Or ham from spam, if we’re talking about email.

In fact, in the illustration above where emails are drops of water, imagine that the only emails flowing in are ones that you’ll hate yourself for ignoring. Emails for which the only reason you’d fail to deal with them would be egregious akrasia or a broken system for processing your email. Like accidentally letting a question from your boss go out of sight, out of mind.

Most systems that purport to keep you on top of your email focus on the efficiency of sorting and replying to it. Automatic filters, snoozing, canned replies, etc, etc. Those are all nice but miss the fundamental problem: the messages you must deal with arriving faster than you deal with them.

I think it’s really hard to appreciate how super screwed you are because you’re collecting everything in a backlog (probably your inbox itself but it doesn’t matter where) and you think you’ll catch up. And if periods when a backlog accumulates are rare and you isolate the backlog and beemind it then, yes, you can catch up. But if they’re not rare then you are crashing into this stubborn fact of fluid dynamics and your backlog will grow without bound.

No Such Thing as Inbox Nonzero

We all know about Inbox Zero: Your inbox is only for things you haven’t looked at yet and when you do look at your inbox, you should do something with every message and get it out of there. Not maintaining Inbox Zero inevitably devolves into Inbox River. [1] As email flows by, you grab things that are important enough to notice. If you don’t, the river empties into a vast sea where everything is out of sight, out of mind and you have little hope of remembering to fish anything out. Knowing that every email is now-or-never, you’re pretty incentivized to grab the truly important things as they flow by.

To make Inbox River work, you better only check email when you have enough time devoted to actually deal with everything that might have appeared since you last checked. That’s the point of Inbox River: everything else must flow by. But then what’s the fundamental difference between Inbox River and Inbox Zero? It’s just a question of whether you explicitly archive the things you’re not going to deal with or archive them implicitly, by letting them flow by.

Maybe the implicit version is psychologically useful for some people, I don’t know. The way it would play out for me is I’d end up jotting down on a to-do list or somewhere all the critical things that were flowing by in the river that definitely have to be dealt with but are too ugh-y to deal with now. And then that to-do list would be the new place for tasks to go to die, for the same fluid dynamical reason: adding things faster than you remove them.


“The incoming stream must not feed the backlog!”

Redqueening means running as fast as you can just to stay in one place. It’s from Alice Through the Looking Glass. More generally it means not falling behind, processing things at the same average rate they arrive.

The key insight is that the incoming stream must not feed the backlog. If it does then you’re not getting the real-time feedback on whether you’re escaping that hard fact of fluid dynamics. It has to be obvious to you as you process incoming tasks that on most days and most weeks, you’re dispatching the important items at exactly the same average rate that they appear. The best way to do that is to always hit Inbox Zero, or whatever your equivalent of that is, every time you look at the incoming stream. So any amount of batching is fine but you have to process everything every time you process a batch.

And that’s it. I fear that this will all sound silly and wrong to those who need to internalize it and will be vacuous platitudes to those who don’t. But it’s been helpful for me to articulate it at least. I’m still fairly terrible with email but gradually getting less so. Even without often hitting Inbox Zero, it’s helpful for me to remind myself that at the end of the day my inbox needs to be back to the size it was the previous day. And that I can isolate and beemind a backlog for special occasions like vacations but doing it routinely or randomly, out of procastination, means an inexorable overflowing cauldron of communications calamity.

UPDATE: Practical Addendum and Straw Poll

One practical aspect of this is psychological. You need a nice clean slate, with a backlog tucked away that you can chip away at nice and gradually. Then you can focus on redqueening — keeping the slate nice and clean.

Here’s an example of a redqueening strategy: Decide how much time is acceptable to spend on email and spend that much time per day grabbing the most important things that have arrived since yesterday. When time runs out you wrest the keyboard from your hand, Dr Strangelove style, and archive the rest.

The insight I’m groping towards is that every possible email / triage / to-do list system is similar to a redqueening strategy like that. Some subset of the inflow you actually deal with and the rest is culled. The key is to have a system that maximizes the intentionality of that subset. If it’s sufficiently intentional then you can call it “dealing with” everything. Archiving and taking no action on a thing counts as dealing with it! Failing to redqueen, on the other hand, means having a subset randomly culled because it flowed indiscriminately into a boundless sea.

Thanks to all the daily beemail recipients for helping me articulate this! I also gave them this straw poll:

  • (a) I’m nodding along but won’t do anything differently
  • (b) This is all wrong, at least for me
  • (c) I’m off to isolate my backlog right now!

The responses: 3 a’s, 1 b, 3 c’s, and 4 none-of-the-aboves. That’s enough for me to call this post a success!



[1] Thanks to John Langford for the Inbox River metaphor.