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  • Inbox, Outlook, Folders, and Filters

    I've been struggling with trying to get a GTD setup working, especially with e-mails. I currently have 2319 items in my IMAP inbox. That's in addition to the 1871 items I have in 25 local folders. These items get there via filters I have set up in Outlook based on the sender. I recently downloaded the GTD Outlook Add-in and, in my mind, that functionality seems to conflict with my process of putting things in folders. Just this morning, I'm having an e-mail exchange with a supplier about a billing issue. I'm at a loss as to how to apply GTD to this (and maybe I shouldn't) since it's something that will be closed within an hour after we exchange probably 4 or 5 e-mails, so those items are just piling up in my Inbox. This is getting very frustrating, so I'm looking for any help, suggestions, ideas, you all can offer. HELP!

  • #2
    Outlook Inbox

    Once you reply to an email, you have processed that item, and should get it out of your inbox. You can delete it (you are done with it) or file it in a reference folder (by project or by vendor). Your sent messages should be tracked as Waiting For (however you do that). Again, we your sent message is dealt with, you can delete it (or let it age and delete naturally from your Sent folder), or file it.

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by bjf123 View Post
      Just this morning, I'm having an e-mail exchange with a supplier about a billing issue. I'm at a loss as to how to apply GTD to this (and maybe I shouldn't) since it's something that will be closed within an hour after we exchange probably 4 or 5 e-mails, so those items are just piling up in my Inbox.
      Okay, so the way I think about this sort of thing (and also the way I happen to actually handle it) is to get back to a paper-based model.

      What would you do if these were real physical letters that were being delivered to and sent from your office?

      The way I like to handle that workflow is:

      1. Item shows up and is tossed into Inbox.
      2. Take out item. Hunh. It's probably crammed with all sorts of intermingled stuff: pure Trash, Action items for me, Waiting Fors on other people, Reference Information, etc.
      3. So I need to spend at least some time dealing with that. If it's an under-2-minute thing, I'll just do it -- but it's easy to deceive yourself about just how long it takes to deal with an email.
      4. The original email is a project now, unless I'm really feeling like I'll only need to send one response and then it'll die. So I create a new project folder, or find one that I already have for this, and throw it in there as Project Reference. It's out of the Inbox, is the important thing.
      5. Since I (probably) have a new Project, it might be a good idea to do at least some quick Natural Project Planning on that. So my real Next Action on this one is "Create project plan for XYZ issue".
      6. This is a good time to slow down a little and think about this a bit more than you might otherwise. What do I really want from this? Is XYZ a valued customer or someone we wish would go away? Brainstorm up some ideas, which will probably get you more than just "reply to email". Then do some organization, which will get you a pile of actions.
      7. As those actions are completed, the Project Reference for this thing is likely growing, which is good.
      8. At some point, you're all out of actions. The project is complete! Congratulations. When you take a look at it again during a Daily or Weekly Review, there might still be some wisdom to squeeze out of it. Or not; it might just be trash to be shredded, which is fine too.

      Now, a lot of people will freak out when they look at that. "I can't do all that for every email! I already get a bazillion emails every day!" So, a couple points:

      1. You very well might not need to do it for every email. If it's pure Trash, or Reference, or whatnot, then this isn't needed. If it's a very straightforward Action -- "Hey Bob, what's the code for a cabbage again?" -- you don't need it either (but these can come back to bite you, so I tend to err on the side of caution.)

      2. You're already doing all these things. You're already deciding, somewhere on some level, what parts of the email are actions, what parts are reference, things you need to look up, people you need to wait for, etc. This just takes all that out of your head.

      3. It's not just flailing around -- it really does add real value to what you're producing and perspective on your processes, in my opinion. It's time well-spent.

      So... that's my advice. Give it a whirl, see how you like it.


      Cheers,
      Roger

      Comment


      • #4
        Do what is appropriate

        Originally posted by bjf123 View Post
        Just this morning, I'm having an e-mail exchange with a supplier about a billing issue. I'm at a loss as to how to apply GTD to this (and maybe I shouldn't) since it's something that will be closed within an hour after we exchange probably 4 or 5 e-mails, so those items are just piling up in my Inbox.
        In my own experience, if an email is actionable it either one or more one-off next actions (do or defer), one or more projects (add project to project list), or as you describe something in between a simple next action and a project. Call it a really short project if you like, but to me it's a conversation.

        For these back and forth conversations, if I expect it will be done before the day ends, I just let it pile up in the inbox. When it comes to a close before the end of the day I will either delete the whole thread, or file some or all of it. Inbox empty. If it turns out that I was wrong and this is really a project I make it a project and again the Inbox becomes empty.

        Don't make yourself crazy thinking you have to keep your inbox empty at all times. It should be emptied as frequently as YOU think it should be. Personally I try for empty at the start and at the end of each day, processing as I can during the day, but leaving work in process in the inbox until I am ready to put things away for the next day.

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        • #5
          Clarify the problem

          I'm not clear on what problem you're trying to solve. Can you clarify this more precisely?

          Comment


          • #6
            I'm trying to solve a number of problems, but the first one is how to use the Outlook Add-in effectively. Part of the problem might be that I can't precisely define the issue. Maybe I'm having trouble wrapping my arms around having many of the messages that show up in my Inbox assigned to "projects". It seems that I'd end up with thousands of projects over the course of a year, which seems a little daunting.

            It sounds like it might be better if I were to turn off all my filters and manually deal with each e-mail by assigning it to a project, filing it for reference, etc. I'm also not sure how I'd deal with multiple incoming and outgoing messages on the same subject, which leads me back to what looks to be thousands of projects. I do like mwkoehler's idea of leaving short term (i.e. today) exchanges in the Inbox and dealing with them at the end of the day. Though he (she?) does reference deleting the whole thread at the end of the day if it's been closed. With items being in both the Inbox and Sent folders, doesn't that become inefficient?

            Comment


            • #7
              I don't use the Outlook add-on, although I use Outlook exclusively: to send and receive all my business e-mails, and to archive e-mails as Project Support materials. I don't use e-mails as Next Action items, as many do. If I have to respond to an e-mail, the Next Action "answer this e-mail" goes goes on a context list and the e-mail goes in a Project folder as support material. I have hundreds, not thousands, of such folders, but my folder hierarchy is carefully organized for very quick finding. (If I were in an Outlook-based system, I would create a Task for answering the e-mail and attach the e-mail to the task.) I have very low e-mail traffic though -- perhaps 30-40 a day. It sounds like your job is mostly e-mail.

              I'm still not clear on what the problem is, though. What's the problem exactly with having thousands of projects? Search time? Are these "projects" resolved in a day? How many open projects do you have at any given time? And, more importantly, how is your current system letting you down?

              Comment


              • #8
                It sounds to me like the Outlook add-in is not the best tool for you.

                You might want to consider using separate lists for your Projects and NAs. This is what I do, and it works well for me. Emails are like physical letters, just triggers for the creation (and update) of Projects and Next Actions. The emails get filed for reference; I don't use them to actively keep track of my work.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Dan Owen View Post
                  I'm still not clear on what the problem is, though. What's the problem exactly with having thousands of projects? Search time? Are these "projects" resolved in a day? How many open projects do you have at any given time? And, more importantly, how is your current system letting you down?
                  Well, I don't really have a consistent system. I had been using Vitalist (online and with my iPhone), but I find I just don't keep it up to date. I'm trying to create something in Outlook, since I'm in it all day. Part of the problem might be my hesitation to delete e-mails. In the back of my mind, I'm always thinking that I might need the e-mail later (even though I don't think it's ever happened).

                  Here's an example of something from yesterday and today involving new cell phones for two salesmen at a branch office. My normal process for this would be as follows: I exchanged a few e-mails with my contact at Sprint to clarify pricing on the phones and the address to ship them to. Once this was done, I sent an e-mail to one of the salesmen letting him know both phones would be coming to his attention and to call the Sprint contact to get their phone numbers activated on the new phones. I just got an e-mail back from him saying thanks. The e-mails from Sprint are in a Sprint folder via a filter. The e-mails from the salesman are in my Inbox and would just stay there.

                  It seems to me to be a waste to set up a project for this, since it only took a couple of days. However, I guess GTD methodology would consider this a project, right? Most of my day is a lot of this kind of thing, reacting to whatever is happening. The more routine parts of my job (CFO for a distribution company) are handled fairly well using tasks and calendar entries in Outlook

                  Any suggestions on how to process these kind of things?

                  Thanks,

                  Bruce

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by bjf123 View Post
                    It seems to me to be a waste to set up a project for this, since it only took a couple of days.
                    What is it you think you'd be wasting, and how much of it do you think you'd be wasting?

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Roger View Post
                      What is it you think you'd be wasting, and how much of it do you think you'd be wasting?
                      I guess maybe the effort to set up the project, only to close it the next day. In this example, it's really nothing I have to track. It will naturally flow and close. Maybe I'm overthinking everything?

                      Years ago, I worked for someone who always carried a yellow legal pad with him at work. Anything that he needed to do was written on that pad. Of course, this was before e-mail, voice mail, and faxes, so everything was either a face to face meeting, a phone call, or a letter. He always said that if we didn't see him write something down that needed followup, tell him, because otherwise it wouldn't happen.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Thanks for the concrete example!

                        I'm going to give you a concrete solution, but I'm going to say again that I don't think you've defined the problem clearly enough. It sounds from your first paragraph that the problem is: I need to find a way to be more consistent in processing my e-mails. But, really, I don't think that's the problem. It sounds like you're resisting processing the e-mails, and the problem is, "why am I resisting processing e-mails in my in-box." Solving that problem may involve thinking carefully and in an organized way about what your ultimate e-mail goal is. Is Inbox Zero of value to you? Lots of people move all e-mails out of their inbox into an archive folder and just search the folder.

                        I'm assuming that if the Sprint project goes off the rails somehow -- phones don't arrive, don't work -- and it ends up back in your lap, it will be valuable to you to have these e-mails archived for reference -- to hold Sprint responsible, or your people, or some other component of the project. At the same time, I can see that if you have thousands of projects like this and they each get their own folder, the .pst file becomes too unwieldy to navigate quickly (and assuming fast navigation is of value to you -- another aspect of this undefined problem). So, I'd create a Miscellaneous file and simply tag (that is, assign categories) and move these kinds of small-but-potentially necessary e-mails into that file. You could probably skip the tagging step, but it really is useful to use Category View when you're trying to find items like this. And, as you say, you almost never have to dig back into items like this, so it's best to spend as little time as possible dealing with it.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by bjf123 View Post
                          I guess maybe the effort to set up the project, only to close it the next day.
                          If your system is such that setting up a project requires an effort that makes you avoid it, that's a huge problem. I strongly recommend figuring something out to lower that resistance.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Dan Owen View Post
                            It sounds from your first paragraph that the problem is: I need to find a way to be more consistent in processing my e-mails. But, really, I don't think that's the problem. It sounds like you're resisting processing the e-mails, and the problem is, "why am I resisting processing e-mails in my in-box."
                            Dan - I think you've hit the nail on the head. The problem was a resistence (feeling overwhelmed) to process the e-mails in my Inbox. In doing some more research, I found a podcast in the Apple iTunes store called "Using Outlook's inbox to manage tasks." I highly recommend listening to it. It expanded upon your recommendation for the use of Categories and one inbox. My system is now set up to move every e-mail from my IMAP Inbox to a local Inbox called Inbox 2009. I have some Outlook rules (which I'm still tweaking) set up to assign categories as the messages are moved. The messages are also immediately flagged for follow up today. If I handle the e-mail immediately, I simply remove the follow up flag. I've got a Smart Folder configured to include everything from this inbox and the Sent folder that's flagged for follow up in ascending order by follow up date. This become my project list and if anything is past due, it turns red so it stands out. Once an item is complete, I remove the follow up flag and it disappears from the smart folder, but is still in the inbox if I ever need it.

                            So far, this is working very well for me. I'm still processing e-mails from the multitude of folders I had before. Once that's done, I'll just have the Inbox 2009, Sent, and Smart Folder. There are other techniques described in the podcast I haven't yet started using, but will in the near future. Thanks for everyone's patience and assistance.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              "I found a podcast in the Apple iTunes store called "Using Outlook's inbox to manage tasks."

                              I can't seem to locate the podcast you refer to. Could you please tell me if it has a different title? I'd really like to listen to it.

                              For what it's worth: I use the single folder method with categories for filing away my email message. I have a folder called "Processed Mail" and I make sure that each message has a topic/category before I file it there. I'm a software add-in geek so I use Speed Filer and Clear Context on top of MS Outlook 2007. I tried to GTD add-in but didn't really care for it. I just couldn't seem to get the hang of it....

                              I also convert emails to tasks all day long (since most of my work world is electronic). I categorize my tasks with @calls; @computer; @home, etc. and then make sure my Task List is sorted by Category. It works quite well.

                              Let me know if you have questions...I'd be happy to help in any way I can.

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