Thursday, June 24, 2010

Inbox Zero and GTD

[I had a request to move this post topic up in the queue. Here it is...]

For the longest time, my inbox was an ever growing "to-do" list and emails I held on to lived in an increasingly complex folder hierarchy.

Then I read "Getting Things Done" (GTD). Here is how I do things now:

When I check my email inbox (either on my phone or computer), I immediately either delete the email, respond to it, or move it to another folder.

If it is clearly junk, it gets deleted. If I'm not sure, but don't want to take the time to figure it out, I move it to a folder labeled "action". If I can respond to it quickly (2 minutes-ish), I'll likely do so immediately if I'm able. If it's going to take some time, it goes into action. If I read it and no further action is needed, I move it to a folder labeled "reference".

Those are the only three folders I have for email: inbox, action, and reference.

Many GTD systems have more folders than that. For a while, instead of "action", I had "read/review" and "respond". I found that most of the time, however, it was just an extra layer to toggle between the two folders that really were the same - they required time on my part. For me right now, one "action" folder works best. This could be different depending on the way you use email and what kind of email you get. 

The question you most often hear with this system is "what about my folders?!?" One big folder labeled "reference" scares people. It scared me, too. However, what enables you to get rid of folders is the "search" feature found in all modern email clients (Outlook, Gmail, etc.). In over a year of using this system, I have always been able to find the email I was looking for that previously would have been in a complex folder structure. Whether it be the subject, the sender or recipient, or some info within the body of the email, the search function always finds it. This does two things:

1. You no longer have to remember where you filed something
2. You no longer have to think about where you want to file a new item

Time saved on both fronts.

So there is the system. The GTD book addresses why an empty inbox is better even if you have an "action" folder that is full: you don't think about the email that needs response every time you open your inbox, rather you only think about it when you go to your action folder.

The next step is to begin moving items from your action folder (or directly from your inbox) to your calendar or task list. But that is another topic.

The underlying philosophy with email, GTD, and any good productivity system, is always being clear about the next action required. Decide what it is, then do it, delegate it, or defer it.

Now about that "do it" part. This is where the "work" part of "workflow" kicks in...

Any questions?

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