Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

On top of things

Is it better to be on top of things or creating things?

Would you rather lose track of time or be up-to-date?

What do you look forward to doing as soon as you finish catching up on everything else?

Almost five years ago, Lane Becker of Adaptive Path wrote something I've never forgotten: "I feel like I make things un-bold for a living now." He was referring to the captivating bold numbers next to our email inbox, RSS reader, voicemail, and on and on. The bold number that shows you how many unread messages you have, how many blog posts are awaiting your attention, how many important conversations you missed because you were having another important conversation.

And our to do lists stand above everything else, measuring our accomplishments in a series of checkmarks.

Sometimes it seems as if we were put here to mark things off a list; not our list, mind you. More often than not, we see the list as filled by everyone but ourselves. We do have a list of our own, a list of unspoken hopes and dreams, but it will have to wait. There is so much else to do.

Is our purpose to take a stream of inputs and information, process them, rate them, tell others about them, and then do it again? If you watch Twitter closely, one of the most commonly celebrated accomplishments is something that our grandparents could never have imagined: "There are zero messages in my inbox!"

Alex Payne, who works at Twitter, calls this processing queues.

A downside of many information architectures is the reduction of data to items in queues that must be manually processed. Though information technology has saved the “knowledge work” generations from a lifetime of manual labor, we have our own assembly lines.

He goes on to list all of the queues he processes in a work day. As amazing as the list is, that's really just part of the story. As soon as you leave work, a whole new set of queues await your attention: Netflix, TiVO, bills, an Amazon wishlist, newspapers and magazines, library holds, home projects, and new music, books, and games. And don't forget the list of friend requests you have waiting for you, each requiring a strange 30-second evaluation of whether you want to add this nice person is worthy to be part of your online world.

Of course, the queues can only be processed after they've been managed. If the paper mentioned a movie you'd like to see, make a mental note to add it to your Netflix queue. Oh, and be sure to prioritize the list before you mail back your next movie. Should the new book a friend told you about be added to your library list, Amazon shopping cart, or wishlist to revisit later? But this assumes you remember the title in the first place. Better add it to your moleskin or field notes, which are old-fashioned queues made of pencil and paper.

All of these things are good in and of themselves. The question is a simple one: are the queues a means to an end or an end in itself? Do the lists allow you to do more, read more, enjoy more or are the lists your life's work?

Is the greatest thing we can leave behind an empty inbox?