One of the basic rules of chess etiquette is that once you touch a piece, you have to either move that piece (if it’s yours) or capture it (if it’s your opponent’s). It’s called the touch-move rule.
My sisters and I would frequently violate the touch-move rule as we hemmed and hawed over our next move. Our parents were very patient with us, and usually only enforced the “if you let go, that’s your move” rule.
Your Inbox probably faces the same analysis paralysis. If you keep picking up the same input over and over again only to consider it, then put it back to deal with later, consider invoking the touch-move rule.
Applied to getting things done, the touch-move rule is simple: when you pick something up to process it, don’t put it down until it’s processed. Whatever “done” looks like—scanned, filed, shredded, put back in its proper place, sent, decided, emailed, called, read, written, trashed—just do it.
Transferring an item to the next Inbox counts as one touch. When you bring in the mail, you don’t have to process every piece of incoming mail right then. You’re still collecting and capturing at that point. Bring in the mail, toss the junk, and put the items that need further attention in the Inbox on your desk.
What you’re trying to avoid here is deferred decisions. They’re one of the top reasons why items get stuck in your Inbox.
Have you ever opened an email, then put it back because you didn’t want to deal with it just then? You may have even marked it as unread so you would know to come back to it later. That’s a deferred decision.
We do this with more than just email, too. I have some sediment in the Inbox on my desk that’s from things I just don’t know what I want to do with them. Every time I sit down to process that Inbox, I get to these items and remember, “Oh, yeah. I need to [fill in the blank] before I can process this correctly.” And back it goes.
What I should do is create a task to actually fill in that blank, then file the item in a Waiting location, with a tickler to circle back and act on the item once the blank is filled. Instead, I keep touching the same items over and over, and don’t make any progress on them.
If the next action isn’t immediately clear, try asking yourself the following questions:
- What is this? No, seriously—if you can’t remember what it is, the outcome isn’t going to have any meaning. Clarity is key.
- Why did I think this was important to act on? Maybe it wasn’t. Or isn’t any longer. It’s okay to change your mind.
- If I just threw this out, would I ever miss it? If not, just toss it.
- Do I need to discuss this with someone? Some decisions need made with someone else.
- Am I the right person to perform the next action? Get it to the right person. (That’s all delegation is.)
- Is this the right time to do something with this? Put it in a Waiting location and schedule a time to come back to it.
- Do I have everything I need to act on this? Move it to the right context.
When you pick up an item, resolve to decide the next action before putting it down. Even if you get side-tracked, it’s hard to forget about something you’re holding in your hand for too long.
If it helps, you can also set a timer, just like timed chess. The timer adds a sense of urgency that can help you focus and make a decision. If you don’t like the decision, make another one later.
Just remember: one you set it down, you’re done with that item. That’s your move.