GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 – Processing and Organizing Your Outlook Inbox

June 18, 2010

By Michael Wheatfill

Table of Contents: GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010

In Part 4 of the GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 Series, we covered how we utilize Outlook and OneNote 2010 to collect all of our digital stuff, thoughts and ideas. We didn’t worry or bother to determine what we did with that stuff, we just focused on capturing.

Now, capturing is great and our Outlook/OneNote combo empowers us to do so quite efficiently, however, all that stuff is not as useful until we look at each item and determine what we should do with it. As David Allen teaches, processing doesn’t necessarily mean we are “doing” all the actions. It simply means that we take the time to identify what each item is and what it means, then decide what we are going to “do” with each item.

In my opinion, processing and organizing goes hand-in-hand, therefore I have combined these into one post. Since we are spending the time to look at each piece of information, why not organize it into our trusted system while we are at it?

This post will focus on Processing and Organizing our Outlook 2010 Inbox. The way we interact with Outlook and OneNote in our GTD system is very integrated and we switch between the two frequently, but quite honestly the posts would be far too long to combine the two, so I’ve split them up.

With our Outlook and OneNote setup, we have a couple buckets to process. We will affectionately refer to these both as our “inboxes”. If you didn’t catch how to setup Outlook and OneNote, refer to Parts Two and Three of the series.

Before we get started, let’s get an idea of what we’ll actually be doing when we process our Outlook Inbox. The diagram below covers how we’ll be handling each item we come across once we identify what it is and what it means to us.


Now that we have a good idea of what we’ll be doing when we process, let’s get started.

Processing and Organizing Our

Outlook 2010 Inbox

The idea here is to look at each item, decide what we should do with it, then organize it appropriately. The end result is that no email should be left in your inbox. The inbox is merely just a collection bucket. An empty inbox signifies that we have looked at every single last piece of email and made a decision on what we should do with it.

If it’s trash…

Push the delete key…simple as that. 🙂

If there is no action…

Not every email that arrives in our inbox is actionable. For these items, we can do two things with them:

1. File as Reference

Simple…you can click and drag to the appropriate folder in Outlook. Or if buttons tickle your fancy, try this approach. On the Home tab of the Ribbon, select the Move button. Outlook populates the Move list with recent folders you have moved items to. One stop shopping for filing!

Anticipate a long thread of emails hitting your inbox for a particular conversation you already know you’ll just be filing for reference? Try the Always Move Messages in This Conversation… option of the Move button. How do you feel about Outlook doing all your Processing/Organizing work for you lazy bones? Feels pretty good!

Now, filing in Outlook folders is obviously contingent on the fact that you have set up a reference folder system in Outlook already. If not you’ll pretty much just have a Trash can to file things (who knows, it may work for some!) I have moved from a very complex nested folder structure to a simple system, and the reason I do this is because Outlook Search and Indexing is so dang good. Try going to any folder and typing a word or two that you think might be contained in the subject or email body, or a name of a person or persons in the To/Cc lines and watch the emails get narrowed down instantly.

Not to mention Outlook’s sorting, as well as Outlook’s Search Folders. Explore these options and you may find if you have a complex folder structure, you’ll be able to simplify it quite a bit, and still be confident you can quickly sort, filter and ultimately find a specific email or thread in an ever-growing sea of electronic conversations.

Now, sometimes you’ll want to file items as reference, but maybe you would rather keep it in OneNote, say with all your Project Support Material or it makes more sense to file this information in your OneNote reference. Simply hit the OneNote button, also found in the Move category of the Home tab.

2. Incubate It

Eventually you’ll come across an email that doesn’t call for any action now, but may call for action in the near future and we’d like to be reminded of it, or it may simply be something that we’d like to do only if we had the time. We can do a couple of things with these type of items. We can stick them on a Someday/Maybe list if someday we maybe can get around to it, or we can put them on our calendar or in a “tickler” file to be reminded of it at a later date.

I have a Someday/Maybe section in OneNote, which we covered in Part Three of the series. It looks like this and it tracks everything I’d like to accomplish someday:

That’s well and fine, but I also keep a Someday/Maybe context in Outlook. These are email items or tasks and it helps me to track these items in Outlook because they have some context already and I can set a reminder sometime in the future if I wish. For instance, let’s say I receive an email for a training event coming up in a month’s time. I don’t know if I can attend now, but I’d like to if I have time. Since all the training details are contained within the email, it makes sense to keep it on the Someday/Maybe list in Outlook and I can easily set a reminder a couple weeks before that says “hey, do you still want to take this training?”

I tend to not put things on my calendar simply for reminders, because I reserve my calendar for my “hard landscape”, in other words my actions and commitments that need to be completed on a certain date or at a specific time. Instead I use the Add Reminder feature as a “tickler” for when I need to address my incubated item in the future. I’ll cover the Add Reminder feature when we talk about Actions later on in this post…or right now!

If there is an action…

So what if this item does have an action? We basically have three options:


Do It

If it takes less than two minutes, just do it. Reply to the email, or complete the action associated with the item or task. Once completed, delete it or file it as reference.

Delegate It

This is by far my favorite. 😉 Usually when we delegate we are communicating this to a person or team via email, IM, phone or in person. The problem arises when we are tracking these multiple delegated items, their status and when we should check up on them. Here’s what I do:

  1. Once I delegate an item via email, I go into my Sent Items and flag it as a task and categorize it with the @Waiting For context.
  2. If I know I need to follow up on the status at a certain time and would like to be reminded of this, I set a Reminder for a future date/time.
  3. Once the delegated task is completed, I simply check it off my list.

Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do this and more in the very next section

Defer It

This is probably where the bulk of our actions are going to land. Unfortunately not everything takes less than two minutes to complete, but these are actions that we want to complete “as soon as possible”. Since our goal is to get our inbox to zero, we must organize these actions appropriately.

If you haven’t done so already, head back to Part Two and set up some Categories for your Next Action contexts. Here’s how I approach flagging and organizing my Next Actions in Outlook:

  1. Flag the email as a task –  I first flag the item so it appears in my task list simply by clicking the flag icon on the email or item so that it appears red as shown below:
  2. Categorize the task – I then categorize the task with the appropriate Next Action context in the task list. It initially appears with a Category of (none). Assign it the correct category by clicking the Categories button in the Tags section of the Ribbon.
  3. Name the task – When you flag an email as a task, the default task name becomes the subject of the email. 99% of the time this doesn’t describe the next action very well. Since our purpose with defining next actions is to determine the very next physical step that needs to be taken, figure out what that is and rename that not so descriptive email subject.To do this, head to the To Do bar, right click the task and select Rename Task.

    You can also rename tasks by using this little trick. Instead of right clicking the task, click it once to select it. Then click one more time (slower than a double click) and the task will become editable and allow you to rename it. Neato!

  4. Add a Reminder – If I need to be reminded of an action sometime in the near future, or if I need to set a hard date/time for completing it, I add a reminder. In the task pane, find the task, right click it, go to Follow Up –> Add Reminder.
    imageThen make sure the Reminder check box is selected, set your date and time in the future that you want to be reminded and click OK. Now you’ll be reminded in Outlook at the specific date and time just as you would with a Calendar reminder.
  5. Move the message out of the inbox – This is critical to our inbox being empty. The only reason we shouldn’t move a message or item out of our Inbox is if we haven’t decided what to do with it yet. As long as we follow the GTD workflow for processing, and trust our system, we should be able to file it, incubate it, or if there is an action – do it, defer it, delegate it. Since the message or item is flagged and categorized, I now trust that I have a running list of the things that need to get done. I don’t care where that message is located in my reference system, all I have to do is double click the task in the To-Do bar to bring the item into view.

Using Our Calendar

I mentioned earlier I only use my calendar as my “hard landscape”. I don’t set reminders for action items or someday/maybe’s through here, because Outlook has the Add Reminder functionality so I don’t need to crowd my calendar with commitments as well as random reminders. That’d just be too confusing for my wee brain to handle.

When working with the Calendar, there are several scenarios we typically come across.

  1. Someone else scheduled a meeting – These show up in Outlook and you can accept, decline and send a tentative response.
  2. We initiate a meeting with other parties – These aren’t something you stick in your Next Actions. They have a specific time, date and location.
  3. We have a commitment that originates outside of Outlook – Stick these on your calendar as well. It often helps to change that 15 minute default reminder to an hour, a day, a week or more. For birthdays and social events, I usually set a reminder one to two weeks in advance especially if there is anything I need to purchase or prepare for in advance.
  4. We want to allocate time to work on a next action or project – Sometimes in order to get focus on a certain task or project, we need to set some hard commitments with ourselves to spend the necessary time on them. With Outlook, head to the Calendar view. Determine an appropriate day and time, and click and drag the Next Action from the To Do bar over to the calendar. To allocate more or less time, you can either edit the calendar item, or click and drag the allocation handles down to specify a larger block of time.

What if I’ve determined there are multiple actions that require a project?

Don’t fret. Add that very next action to the Outlook To Do bar, then head over to OneNote and create a project page in your Projects section. Quickly jot down other “next-next actions” and brainstorm any other ideas associated with your project. We’ll definitely cover this in more detail in an upcoming post.

Our Inbox is Empty!…Right?

Now that we have an empty inbox, we’re feeling good about organizing and identifying next actions for all our email and Outlook items. The next step is to move over to OneNote and get our Inbox section processed and organized. We’ll cover OneNote in the next post. Thanks for reading and see you there!

Continue to Part 6: GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 – Processing and Organizing Your OneNote Inbox

24 Responses to “GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 – Processing and Organizing Your Outlook Inbox”

  1. […] Part 5 of the GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 Series, we covered how we Process and Organize our Outlook Inbox. We’re now feeling good and can move on […]

    • Dan Says:

      How come when I flag an email, categorize it, then move it out of my inbox the email disappears from my to-do list?

      • fake1 Says:

        Right-click the .pst in Outlook, then click “properties”.

        In that window, check the box that says “display reminders and tasks from this folder in the to-do bar”.

  2. Juls Says:

    Michael — thank you for taking the time to write such a helpful series. My productivity has already improved and I just came across your blog a couple of hours ago.

    Question: I like the concept of having an empty inbox in Outlook. However, my company’s Exchange mailbox quotas are too low to allow my reference folders to reside on the server. Unfortunately, when you move an email with an associated task to a local PST folder from the Exchange inbox, the associated *task* is also removed. Essentially Step 5 will not work. Do you know of a good workaround?


    • Brad Says:

      I save all email in Local Folders. You’re correct, that when you move an email to a local folder, any associated task disappears from the To Do bar.

      I am running Office 2010 and if you right click on the root local folder, go to Data File Properties, and tick the “Display reminders and tasks from this folder in the To-Do Bar”.

      That should solve the issue…

  3. Umetnic Says:

    Hi There!
    Looking forward for next article, You are doing amazing Job Here!
    Thank You for all the details and pictures!!
    With Kind Regards, Dejan

  4. Eric Says:

    Loved the posts so far, Is there\will there be another post on this? I see mention of Processing and organizing in OneNote, but don’t see a link.

    Thank you

  5. […] GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 – Processing and Organizing Your Outlook Inbox « … Says: June 18, 2010 at 1:35 pm […]

  6. […] GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 – Processing and Organizing Your Outlook Inbox […]

  7. john Says:

    excellent blog! How do you handle project support material? And also, could you explain your filing system in more detail?

  8. John Weisenfeld Says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas here. I think you can go one step further and not do *any* filing of mails out of your inbox into subfolders. Just use it as a giant database that you can search if you need. My GTD strategy is to file all mail as done (“checked”) or not (“needs decision”) or flagged (“follow up needed”). The cool thing is that if you flag stuff it doesn’t get put into the archive when you archive your Inbox.

    In summary, creating a massive subfolder structure is just wasted cycles, my opinion.

    • Michael Wheatfill Says:

      John W,

      Thanks for reading. So do you leave your mail in your inbox or do you file it in one of three folders? (“Checked”, “Needs Decision”, “Follow Up Needed”)

      I agree with your idea of wasted cycles on complex sub folder structures. I echo this sentiment above by saying “I have moved from a very complex nested folder structure to a simple system, and the reason I do this is because Outlook Search and Indexing is so dang good.” Before indexing became prevalent, I found myself creating complex structures based on projects, people, topics or time frames. Now with indexing it’s so much more efficient to find the information you are looking for, that it pretty much negates the need for complex organizational methods.

      With that said, I’m still a huge fan of the idea of inbox zero, and love the feeling of having an empty inbox knowing that even though something is out of my inbox, I’m made the decision to action it or file it as reference.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  9. Jorge Silva Says:

    Hi Michael

    Thanks for the good ideas that you’ve shared on this posts. I’m following some of them for my daily organization.

    However, I’m having difficulties in one thing:
    – I create a task from an email by flagging it.
    – If I rename the task in the “To-do list” on any view (E-Mail; Calendar; etc.) it also changes the email subject
    – If I rename the task in the Tasks view it doesn’t change the email subject

    Do you know how it could be avoided to change the email subject when changing a task name in the to-do bar?

    When the email subject is changed I then loose the relation with the thread it belongs to.

    I’ve searched for a column to add to the view that would be the “Task Subject” but couldn’t find it. There’s only a column called “Subject”.

    Jorge Silva

  10. Jared Says:

    Have you considered posting a blank OneNote file you already have setup? It would let everyone see it really nicely, I know I would love to have a sample to just start using.

  11. tyler Says:

    this thread has single handedly saved my life!

  12. Uwe Says:

    Dear Michael,

    thanks for this very helpful blog. I have one question concerning your todo-lists. If I flag an email as task it appears on my todo list. As you showed, it is possible to change the title of the task. No problem so far.

    But the content of the email is displayed below the task title and I have no clue how to get rid of it. It’s quite distracting. In your todo-lists there is no such thing. Do you have any idea, how to prevent Outlook from showing the email content?

    Thanks a lot in advance

  13. Says:

    I conceive you have observed some very interesting points, thanks for the post.

  14. Barry Says:

    Great blog. To get my inbox empty I like to delete the email. But that wipes it from the to-do list as well. Where do you recommend putting emails until they are complete?

  15. Cherry Wild Says:

    Thanks for a really great system! I have spent a lot of time and energy in trying to sort out my life and this has helped no end. I am also going to adapt my hardcopy system using this model.

  16. Hello Michael, thanks for the great article series!

    If you’re still using the system, can you advise how you solved the following issue:
    1. You have a project with a list of actions in OneNote.
    2. An email related to the project arrives.
    3. You to put email, say, on @Waiting for context by adding a reminder to it and renaming the resulting task.

    In this situation, do you associate the email with the project in OneNote somehow? Or does it just sit lonely in your email without any connection to OneNote? In the latter case, I wonder how you sort between tasks for different projects.

    Readers of this post, please share your experience.

  17. I like this series very much! Have you considered using Quick Steps in Outlook 2010? This is an excellent feature to move, flag, categorize, etc … all in a click of a button.

    Use the following link for a tutorial on this:

  18. gogon Says:

    super post, very inspiring and helpful
    thank you michael

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