I’ve been using many of the productivity principles of Getting Things Done (GTD) for about five years now. For even longer than that I’ve grown to rely on Outlook – Microsoft’s popular email, calendaring and task application. Without either one my productivity would take a serious dip. So I thought I’d share the rather simple steps I take to allow Outlook to work well as a GTD engine…specifically how I can quickly process my emails into Next Actions, Defer tasks to a specific day and/or time, putting emails in a tickler file I’ll remember to look at, and finally delegate tasks with the appropriate follow up notifications. If you are not familiar with the GTD productivity system and associated lingo, head over to www.davidco.com for some free resources and downloads that will introduce you. With that knowledge in hand this blog post will make more sense to you.
Let’s start with creating a semi-automated way in Outlook 2010 to turn an email into a Next Action/Task. We’ll be using the Quick Steps feature of Outlook to do this. Quick Steps are on the ribbon under the Home tab.
Before creating your first custom Quick Step, you will want to create three new folders under your Inbox folder and name them @Action, @Deferred, and @Tickler. Then add 12 new subfolders under the @Tickler folder and label them for each month of the year. Once these have been added, you are ready to add the @Action Quick Step. Click on “Create New” in the Quick Steps section and name it @Action.
Now just complete the form using the settings above. To use it, just select the email you’d like to turn into a task/next action and hit the @Action Quick Step you just created. The email will be attached to a task, which you can name with the appropriate action verb and other directions, then be sure to hit the Category button to assign the right context. (Your contexts may vary. The basics could include Errand, Home, Office, Computer, Agenda, Email, etc.) Then Save and Close the task and viola, your email is attached to a task, and saved in the @Action folder, just in case something goes wrong. Not out of the question with Outlook. You really don’t need the saved email in the @Action folder, since the entire email is attached to the task, with any attachments…sweet. So you may want to clean out the @Actions folder occasionally to save disk space.
Now if you sort your Tasks by Category you will quickly be able to see all your next actions by context. This is what my Task list looks like. Now I have a task with the attached email waiting for me to open it up and complete with all the reference material I need to complete the job.
Deferring an email (turned next action/task) is easily done as well using Quick Steps. What this one will do is take that email and plant it on your calendar either as an all day event (as a reference for activities you’ll be involved in that day, or as an appointment with a person or a task you will complete at that time).
Click on the “Create New” again and name this one @Defer. Fill out the rest of the form with the settings below.
Now, when you are ready to move an email out of your Inbox onto the calendar for reference or as an action, just click the @Defer Quick Step and it will allow you to set the day/time or all day event that will place it at the top of your calendar for reference once you get to that day. You can then either use the email as a resource, or as an action you need to perform on that day when you can fit it in. Again the email will be stored in @Deferred for safe keeping…probably never needing it however.
But what about those emails you want to consider at some point in the future, just not right now? Those, of course, belong in some kind of “tickler” system. This is where those @Tickler folders you created come in. First of all, let’s create the Quick Step. Here again are the settings for it.
Once completed, then select the email you want to tuck away until a later date. Hit the Quick Step called @Tickler and it will ask you what folder you’d like to move the email to. Navigate to one of the months you created under the @Tickler folder and click OK and off it goes. (Note: My system only accounts for months to store stuff. If you want greater granularity you could use the @Defer tool to put the Tickler email on a specific day. I find that to be overkill however.)
One important part of the tickler process is to remember to look into the appropriate folder at the right time. So what I do to help me remember is to create a recurring task that reminds me to check my @Tickler file folders once a month.
Finally my favorite part…delegating. This is the only one of the four that doesn’t use a Quick Step, but a Rule. It really isn’t that hard either however. So you have an email that you’d like to forward to somebody else to address, but you also need to stay on top of this and perhaps take some kind of action after they have done their thing. So the trick is to send the email, but save a copy and put a task on a “waiting for” list. Here’s how. First, go into Categories and create a new one call !Waiting For (I use the ! sign in front to move this category to the top when sorting). Then go to the Rules button in the ribbon and create a new rule. Go into Advanced options and work through the steps to wind up with something that looks like this:
Essentially what you are doing is telling Outlook to look for emails forwarded from you with your email address contained in the CC line. When Outlook sees that it will move the mail into the Tasks folder with a category tag of Waiting For. You will never see the email even come into your inbox. So to Delegate an email, just CC yourself as you forward it and you will have a record of your delegation and be able to follow up as necessary.
There are many other tweaks that make Outlook a little more GTD friendly, but with this set of four you should be able to become more productive and keep your inbox empty and your task list and calendar accurate and useful.
This post is a part of the
Summer 2011 WELS Hacker
series on the WELSTech Podcast.