Advent 2022: 13. Inbox and Backlog Reduction and Freshening

Today’s Advent Calendar post collates some ideas about dealing with backlogs or other over-large / out-of-control collections of things (physical or electronic).

Common advice for handling a huge mess of items is to isolate all of them into a backlog, implement a robust system for fully handling all new items every day so that nothing ever gets added to the backlog, and then slowly work the backlog down to zero. (Hate that approach? There are other methods below!)

Here’s some ideas for how to isolate a backlog in some online “inboxes”:

  • Email: create a “backlog” folder or label (see also Gmail Inbox or Backlog Reduction).
  • Slack saved posts: Send a DM to yourself saying “---------- backlog starts here -----------” and add it to your saved posts. That splits your saved items into the backlog below that post and all new items above it (be sure to process and un-save all the new ones every day!)
  • Mastodon bookmarks: Basically the same idea as for Slack. Write a “backlog starts here” post, put your @username in it, and change the privacy to “mentioned people only”. When you post it, only you will see it. Add it to your bookmarks.
  • Twitter bookmarks: Write or find a tweet that you’ll recognise as being a backlog marker (perhaps a nice cat photo, or you could tweet about your backlog process) and add it to your bookmarks.
  • Browser tabs: Send them all to a service like Pocket, or use an extension like OneTab (I love it). To help you avoid a new backlog, consider an extension that automatically closes tabs if they have been open too long.

Dealing with the backlog is simple: a Do More goal where you add +1 for each item that you handle, with the rate set to something you’re comfortable with. Alternatively, try a Whittle Down goal if you have a premium subscription and know how many items are in the backlog.

It can be hard to be consistent with processing all new items every day, but that’s important if you want to prevent a second backlog developing. Try a separate Do More goal for each source of new things. Submit +1 if you dealt with all new items that day. Set a rate of 1 per day to enforce perfect consistency or try Daily 6 Days Per Week for more leniency. Note that this Do More is different than your backlog Do More!

For any websites that contain your new items (e.g., your Slack saved items list), consider putting all the sites into a bookmark folder and opening it every evening for processing. Alternatively use a scheduling extension such as SimpleBrowsingSchedule to open the sites automatically.

But what happens when it’s impossible to isolate a backlog? Household clutter might be an example, if the pressures of life make it too hard to avoid out of place items. Browser tabs or a Pocket queue might be another, if the system above doesn’t work for you.
For these, use a Control Systems approach. It’s similar to the isolated backlog idea but without the requirement to separate new items and keep them always under control:

  • Have a Do More goal and submit +1 for each item you fully handle.
  • Review the collection each week.
    • If it’s growing faster than you’re processing it, increase the rate of the goal - you want the collection to shrink over time.
    • If it’s nearly empty, make the goal easier so that you’re not risking an emergency day when there’s not enough left to do.
  • Perhaps also submit +1 when you add an item to the collection (e.g., if it’s better to have household clutter put in a box than spread around the house). Dial your goal a little steeper to compensate.
  • EDIT: See this comment below for the more advanced “cluttermania” approach from a Beemail.

There are some kinds of backlogs / collections of items where you can’t actually remove an item frequently and/or where you might expect the backlog to never be emptied. However, you don’t want the collection to go stale with forgotten items. For example:

  • a pile of books or craft items that you’ve started or want to start soon
  • a list of friends and family to keep in touch with
  • a list of someday/maybe tasks
  • a GitHub repo’s issues (“gissues”)
  • a collection of documentation files to keep up to date

For things like these, you want the Backlog Freshening strategy:

  • Pick the oldest item.
  • “Touch” it in some way:
    • read a couple of pages
    • do a row of knitting
    • call a friend
    • add a step to a plan for a someday/maybe task
    • do a small step of a task
    • decide you no longer want to do a task and delete it
    • improve a gissue in some way (there are some great ideas in Backlog Freshening and Gissue freshening and UVIs)
    • improve one documentation file (Backlog Freshening For Humans describes how this is done for Beeminder’s own help docs)
  • This item is now the “newest”, and next time you’ll work on a different one.

Do you have any strategies or tricks for keeping your backlogs or inboxes under control? Post a comment!

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These posts are so incredibly detailed, thank you so much for them! This one and yesterday’s one strike me in particular as such. They’re a brilliant resource ongoingly (if that’s a proper word), and I know I would benefit by coming back to a number of them over the year In fact… I shall set that as a goal…

Actually, better than that, since there’s an increasing list in my mind of “things I should revisit periodically”, I shall forthwith create an actual list, so I don’t forget things and so I can add to it, and I’ll Beemind it, using the Backlog Freshening technique you describe in this post. It’s not a backlog per se, but it’s a list of things I’ll otherwise forget about until I stumble upon them in some other context, but which I would benefit from keeping more centrally in mind. Not sure what I should call it, but the analogy with backlogs is nigh-on perfect. Suggestions for a good name are welcome :slight_smile:

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For anyone interested in using freshening with Todoist tasks, there’s a clever idea by @pyng in this forum comment.

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I’m copying in @dreev’s “cluttermania” daily beemail from 22 December, 2022 because it’s a clever enhancement to the original Control Systems approach for dealing with clutter.

Happy Solstice!

Here’s a holiday special beemail: My and Bee’s new scheme for beeminding decluttering. It starts with the obvious thing everyone does: a do-more goal to put items of clutter away. You get a +1 for putting away something that was cluttering the house.

The new twist is that we designate a big box or closet or cordoned off area which we call purgatory. If there’s a piece of clutter you don’t know what to do with, you get half a point for putting it in purgatory and another half for taking it out and putting it where it belongs. So if you need 2 points today, you can put 4 things into purgatory, take 4 things out, or anything in between.

This seems to be helpful because sometimes you’re in shove-things-under-the-bed mode and other times you can gradually whittle down that mass of clutter as Beeminder demands.

Of course you can use the control systems [1] approach to dial up your decluttering rate as purgatory threatens to overflow, and dial it down to keep it from ever quite dwindling to nothing.

Let me know if you’re inspired to try that, or if you have your own variant you like!

[1] I recently realized that the term “cybernetics” is an even fancier term for control systems, as if I weren’t already making such a dirt simple idea seem seventeen times more complicated than it is: Control Systems For Backlogs | Beeminder Blog

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