GTD Setup: Email

How To Setup Your GTD Email System

GTD Setup | Email

UPDATE April 2009: I added a video called "How To Process Your GTD Email" below.

For those of you just joining me, I've been creating a series of Getting Things Done GTD Thirty Day Challenge posts on my blog, the link for which is below, and thought I'd create one of the posts over here on a hubpage about my GTD email setup.

For those of you swinging by here on your way through the challenge, you'll recall that I'm working on these posts as I get time and not necessarily on a rigid thirty day schedule. Hang in there, I'll do some other posts as I get time.

I've already received a bunch of great emails and comments telling me how much some of the things I've already done have helped and to keep the GTD information coming and I wanted to say thanks for those, it's great to hear from you and how you are all doing.

What Is GTD?

For many of you, GTD is a term you know a lot about. If you are not familiar with GTD, it stands for Getting Things Done and is a system discussed in the book with the same name by David Allen. As a reader of tons of self improvement and business related books, it's my opinion that this is one of the best books I've ever read and one that has done more to help me get and stay organized than any other book I've ever read. I first discovered it in 2005 and since then, I've never had greater clarity in what I have to do nor have I ever had a greater organizational system than at any other time in my life. This transformation didn't happen overnight though and in today's hubpage, I am going to go over where I really started seeing the true benefits of getting things done and and thus the momentum I needed to carry over GTD to all the areas of my life. It all started by getting my email under control.

My email inbox was so out of control, as well as my paper inbox, too when I first read Getting Things Done. I'd estimate that I had approximately 3,000 plus emails in my inbox. Today, as I write this, my email inbox is at zero and in addition to that, my folders are well organized and all the tasks that have come in via email are out of my emai and into my GTD system.

Where To Set Up Your GTD Email

OK. So, how did I do it. It was a gradual process over a period of a couple of years and you are going to get the benefit of the finished system that I use today and one that I consider at a black belt gtd level, for me at least.

If you have complete control of your email, meaning your employer doesn't decide the system that you use, then I strongly suggest, that you switch to the paid version of Yahoo! email. Now, if you are a Google Gmail user, then by all means use them if you want and if you are tied to your employer's system like Microsoft Outlook, you can use these tips within the confines of that. I use to use Outlook until one too many hard drive crashes forced me out of it. I'm not big on backing up as you might guess.

I recommend using the paid version of Yahoo! email for the following reasons:

  1. You can access it anywhere in the world, whether you have your computer or not.
  2. You have unlimited storage, meaning you can archive everything and search everything.
  3. You don't have to back up your email system on your computer so all of your archived email can be kept permanently as well as your contacts with minimal risk of loss.
  4. It's interface is a lot like Outlook so it's easy to work with.
  5. You can have all of your other email forwarded into it.
  6. It's email system is more robust than most web providers.
  7. You can establish one permanent email address that doesn't have to change when you change internet providers, which you most likely will. I know I didn't change internet providers but they changed ownership and therefore changed everything. Because I control my email account, I was unaffected. In fact, if you've got the cash, I'd get your own domain name to eliminate that problem forever but that's another topic entirely.

I've never regretted my change to Yahoo! email, a service that I once thought was beneath me because it was free. I've since learned better and at $20 bucks or so for the year for the premuim account, which you need, it is a great deal.

Tip: Channel all of your email through one email inbox for an airtight setup.

How To Set Up Your GTD Email Folders

The next step is then to setup your email folders. After tinkering with my email folders for a year or so, I can't remember the last time, I changed the structure of my folders. At the end of the year here, I've decided to change the order of my folders to the order I work through them. The basic folders will not change and these work for me very well and I'd encourage you to work on yours in much the same way.

My folders:

  • Inbox (Where all of your email shows up initially.)
  • 00 - Action Folder (The 'true' inbox)
  • 00 - Read/Review
  • 00 - Reference
  • 00 - To Print
  • 00 - Waiting For
  • 01 - Yahoo Reminders
  • 02 - Faxes
  • 03 - Assistant
  • 04 - Associates
  • 88 - Sent 2008
  • 89 - Sent 2006-07
  • 90 - Present Archives
  • 98 - Archives 2008
  • 99 - Archives 2006-07
  • 99 - Coupons

You'll see that I've numbered my email folders to put them in an order that I like. David Allen recommends using the "@" sign and you can do that too, but I used a numbering system to have greater control of grouping the folders in sections.

You'll notice that I archive both my sent and received email. The one labelled 90 - Present Archives is my received email even though I didn't use receive to describe it. I also keep email between my assistant, company associates and faxes (received via email from a MyFax account) in their own folder for quicker reference.

As I write this, it's nearing the end of 2008 and I'll soon be changing the archive folders to:

  • 90 - Present Archives
  • 98 - Archives 2009
  • 99 - Archives 2006-08

I'll do the same with the sent archives. Once a quarter, I archive my email from present to the current year archive folder for both sent and received email.

UPDATE: You'll notice a screenshot of my folders at the top of this article. I have now changed my folders to the order I check them and streamlined them even further.

What I Do When I Check My Email

When I open my email account, my inbox is jammed full of email. I get a ton, most of which is spam and informational. The rest requires some sort of action. I've broken my email processing down into a series of steps that I follow each time and use a "push" down system that if I can't decide what to do with something I "push" it down the system to keep it moving. I'd suggest that you break down each step you take and create a checklist so you remember to do the same thing every time and do not forget anything.

OK. Here's how I complete the processing of my email:

  1. I go through each email in my inbox, mark spam, delete trash, file reference and archive material. Reference is something I might need to refer to more often than an email I want to keep. I do the quick items using the two-minute rule and everything else that needs action goes into my Action folder.
  2. I then review my spam folder for anything that might have been directed there by mistake.
  3. I empty the spam folder.
  4. I reprocess any email I put back into the inbox from spam following the steps in #1.
  5. I then move to my Yahoo! reminders folder. The reminder folder receives email from my calendar reminding me of calendared items that need my attention. This creates an action list of things that I need to do and acts as my tickler file. The Yahoo! calendar reminder system is excellent and I've setup a filter to funnel all reminders into this folder for processing. I'll process all of the items in the Yahoo! reminders folder that I can, and leave the rest for later processing.
  6. I review my Waiting For folder for things I am waiting on. I delete items that are done and complete items that might need action and leave the rest for my next review.
  7. If I am at a printer, I review my To Print folder for items I need to print and move those to my archive.
  8. I check my Read/Review if I have extra time for reading.
  9. I then turn my attention to my Action folder. This is where the real processing begins.
  10. I usually get more email during my processing and repeat until I get it all to zero and out of my action folder.

Once I reach step number nine, I then consider the Action folder a new "inbox" and my goal now is to get my Action folder to zero as well.

How To Empty Your Email Action Folder

My challenge each day is to get my email inbox to zero and my Action folder to zero. When I first started, I think I had several hundred email in my action folder that needed to be completed. It took some time and focus to get it to zero and these are my tips to getting it down to zero too.

This is what I did to get it to zero:

  1. Consider your Action folder a new "inbox".
  2. Consider the list of emails a context list to work from when you are @ Email.
  3. Extend the two-minute rule to a five or ten-minute rule.
  4. Work on each item one at a time focusing on that item only and ask yourself what is the next action? What do I have to do to get that email out of my Action folder?
  5. Working on each item one at a time is the hardest GTD skill to master. When you are first trying to get your Action folder to zero, give yourself permission to do the easy stuff to reduce the number of items in the folder. That will help you create momentum until you get stronger and more efficient.
  6. If you have a huge backlog in your action folder, create a second Action Backlog folder. Move your backlog into your action backlog folder. Scan it for items that need immediate attention. Put those in your Action folder and complete them.
  7. If an email is stuck and you cannot figure out how to move it, print it out and stick it in your physical inbox to keep it moving by "pushing" it down the system.
  8. I learned the "push" down system on my own when my wife asked me to clean the house. I'd start in a room and push everything to the next room and then the next until I was done. She thought it was crazy but what it does is give your mind a mental victory that you are making progress.
  9. I also suggest that you use your weekly review to hone your skills on the front end of the system before you start doing hard core reviews. Set aside your review time as always, once a week. Use the weekly review time to mastering the collection process. Then use it to master the processing process. Keep mastering your system until you master your weekly review and to the higher levels of your GTD system.

Getting Things Done GTD Challenge Wrap-Up

There you have it. This is how I process my email each and everyday. I know and can trust that any email that comes into my system gets processed. I hope that you found my suggestions and tips helpful. Be sure and visit my blog, sign up for my challenge and good luck with your Getting Things Done GTD system and setting up your GTD email.

My Yahoo! GTD Email Folders

Here is my gtd email folder setup.
Here is my gtd email folder setup.

How To Process Your GTD Email

Comments 5 comments

metaphysician profile image

metaphysician 7 years ago

Thanks for your tips on this. Certainly will be a helpful one!


Jamie 6 years ago

Excellent Mate, not an easy subject to comprehensivley expolore and explain but you've done a great job. I'll be trying some of my tips as this as incorporating GTD is my 30 day challenge!


Laurie Cope 6 years ago

Good tips, but a very importanrt issue is "does the email client support GTD" and allow you not to be distracting from work. For example, without a manual send and receive email is constantly pushed to you, rather than allowing you to check it when you are ready for email. Often I am stuck in a process of checking and replying to email and get nothing done! It is a pity we need to tailor our email clients to support GTD. My blog here describes the features I think are important: http://blog.affinitywebsolutions.co.uk/gtd/568-wha...


Lena 3 years ago

You just blew my mind. I never thought of archiving my "Sent" Items. There's been so many times when I can't find an email I sent if the other person never responded. In Gmail it clumps "conversations" together so I normally don't have that problem... lol


Johnd986 2 years ago

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