GTD with Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 – Processing and Organizing Your Outlook Inbox
June 18, 2010
By Michael Wheatfill
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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
Then 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.
- 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.
- Someone else scheduled a meeting – These show up in Outlook and you can accept, decline and send a tentative response.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!