For some time I'm using Getting Things Done technique to manage my emails. Here is an article describing how to setup you Outlook to work with Categories and Search Folders. I'd like to share my impression on that.
Before: Default Outlook Configuration
In each company I've worked we always had some kind of task management system. Either it was Trac, Jira or TFS. They contained tasks related to projects. But during the daily routine you receive many "informal" tasks to you inbox.
This is what we all went through! When you begin working in a new company, the first day is the only day when your emails are organized. As time pass, you're inbox became a mess. You have many emails, which contain tasks you should do, many, which contain useful information (e.g. server addresses, configuration, passwords!), and finally many, which are just a noise.
Where to Start?<
I've started by reading classic book Getting Things Done by David Allen. I strongly recommend this book. In my opinion, you can skip the first part, which is mostly theoretical. The second part is practical and describes application of GTD technique.
Email = Task
The most important thing in implementing GTD technique into is changing your thinking about emails! They are not emails any more - they are tasks. If an email doesn't contain a task which requires an action from you, maybe it contain task which you should monitor. If email contains none of them - it surely contain some information which is useful to finishing some task.
As described in the article I've linked to above, I use categories and search folders.
I use the following:
- 00 - Inbox - this is the search folder which contain all uncategorized emails (all new emails go here.)
- 01 - Next Action - the emails which are tasks that require my action.
- 02 - Waiting for - the emails which contains tasks that doesn't require my input but are waiting for somebody elses action. It is common that email go through few cycles "Next Action" -> "Waiting for".
- 03 - Reference - the email that doesn't require any action and contain useful information that should be saved for reference.
- 08 - Someday - emails which contain ideas or tasks which can be done later or require further planning
- 09 - Done - finished tasks
Another useful feature of MS Outlook is ability to group conversations. With it, when you categorize a group each new email will have automatically assigned category of a group.
My Working Cycle
The most difficult thing in a developers life is context switching. Once I've read an article about the process each of us should perform to fully focus on a more or less complex development. Sometimes it takes tens of minutes to build virtual image of the task we work on in our heads. And then, when we are almost there - Outlook's message pops-up. We check the email, start to reply, spend some time on that and go back to the task we were working on. Till this point, the virtual image we were building is mostly gone!
How GTDing your MS Outlook helps with your productivity?
When new email comes:
- If it went to Inbox: read it quick and decide. If it requires your action and the action won't distract you from the current task - do it. If the task is too long - mark it as a new action. GTD technique suggests 2 minutes threshold, but I use a criterion of the energy which is involved in the tasks. The more energy the task requires, the more distraction it is from your current task.
- If the email went to Next Action folder. This is when your red light should start to glow. This can be new information about the task you are currently doing or any task which you will be doing during the next few hours. You should pay more interest in this email.
- If the email went to one of Reference, Someday, Waiting For or Done - don't pay attention to it. The email regards one of the tasks which have less priority for you now. You can read them during your next coffee break.
I find this technique very useful. It keeps me more productive, more focused on current tasks and more sure that I keep track of all the emails/tasks I'm supposed to do. I've put this David Allen's quote into my email's footer:
Keep in mind, you can feel good about what you're not doing, only when you know what you're not doing.