Organising the Inbox

If you read the GTD post 2 weeks ago, by now you will know that your email inbox is certainly a place that you will need to organise and capture information from. So, how do we do GTD, mark next actions, defer or delete or make an item a tickler for later reminder/action? There are many ways to do this, whatever you chose has to be quick and easy to be sustainable.

Firstly how you deal with email depends on how you prefer to ‘file’ emails. Some subscribe to inbox zero, that is get everything out of the inbox immediately and certainly by the end of the day. Some like to file everything into discreet folders (beware too many nested folders, this can slow your client down) and, there is an actual restriction on the number. Others still rely on the search function and filters to find emails simply left in the inbox or, filed in one or a small number of folders.

The beauty of digital resources is that they (to my mind) are much more easily searchable than physical written materials especially those without an index! There are also many ways of tagging to describe them making it possible to store, find and retrieve items without having a very complex folder or filing system which takes time to maintain. Like physical folders, some things may need to be cross referenced, this is where tags/categories come in useful.

Each email client will have different functionality that can be used to better manage email. I am choosing Outlook as it is widely used and is available free to all staff and students either as part of the campus agreement or by downloading Office 365. It is a powerful, flexible tool available for: Windows, MacOSX, iOS and Android) for Linux users wishing or needing to use Outlook are restricted to Outlook Web Access (OWA) client via a browser.

My GTD system uses these two basic features:

  • Follow up flag
  • Categories

In addition there are these optional advanced features, which will covered in another the post (probably in two weeks time):

  • Quicksteps (similar to macros, a repeatable automated action triggered by a keystroke or click)
  • Tasks (allow annotation of emails, add notes, set reminders and more)
  • Filters (provide a view of a restricted set of information an example we see today is the category view)
  • Rules (provide a means to define criteria to make actions happen as email arrives in the inbox for example move all email from advertiser x straight to trash)

When reading through new mail, much can be deleted straight away, this is a quick win, the delete key is your friend! For those emails to which you must reply or return to I simply flag quickly for further triage. Emails which are for information only and require not action, file wherever they belong according to your system or use categories…

Categories are like tags or labels, I use them to categorise items using a mixture of words and colour, mainly I rely on colours, because the colour is always visible in the client which is not so for the written category label. You should also be aware that the written category label is also visible to recipients of tagged messages or calendar events. Choose your words wisely, or keep the category description as the default which is simply the colour name.

Here are my categories


You will see that some of the labels are simply colours. I use these as status indicators for my GTD system, waiting, urgent, next action, follow-up, defer, delegated etc.

Others are used to denote locations which I use in my calendar as a quick visual reminder of which office I need to be at for an appointment. It is entirely up to you how you use categories. You can have multiple categories which I find allows me to file an email in one folder and still refer to another topic, status or folder. If you like, it forms the equivalent of the index found in a book.

A quick word on follow-up flags, before filing but after an initial triage, the default flag is set to follow-up today. I may add further categories, or change the follow-up flag from one of the built-in due dates before filing. You can also customise the flag description, add a reminder as well. If you use categories to mark status you will want to remove or update the categories. To remove all categories use ctr + shift + 1, or the category is toggled by clicking on the category to add or remove it, or using the keyboard  shortcut which you assigned.

filterLastly you need to use a filter to see what you have marked. Outlook has a default flagged filter to show you all flagged items and a categories view which shows you anything with an assigned category.

I know this is a longer post than usual, but it is a flexible system that is easily customised to suit your needs, even before you add in additional filters to give the view you want or adding quick steps!

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