GTD with Outlook

I’ve been looking at the Getting Things Done process for organizing all your tasks and projects for a little while now. Though I’ve only just bothered to pick up the book, rather than just guessing what’s in it via hints from other websites.

I’ve been trying to apply some of the principles to how I deal with work emails and have come up with a technique that’s been working pretty well since January, so I thought I’d share it.

A posting on Getting Things Done with Gmail started me off thinking about this. At the client I’m working for at the moment they use Outlook (I’ve used it for many years and am intimately familiar with the good and bad in it) so I’ve had to work with the tool in hand. I much prefer working with gmail, or before that the Opera mail client, which was probably the best I’ve used, since they have a simpler ability to tag / label mails in multiple ways, but if you combine a few tricks in Outlook you can get to a reasonable solution.


Decide Flag Colors:

  • Blue = action
  • Red = action with reminder / deadline
  • Purple = delegated
  • Green = reference
  • Orange = deferred

(I don’t like too many red flags because they scare you and make you angry when you look at the list of things to do …)

Create Project Folders:

  • Create sub-folders in your inbox named by each project or logical / thematic grouping of your work

Create Search Folders

  • File >> New >> Search Folder
  • Create a custom search folder >> choose
  • Add name (Action, Deferred, Delegated, Reference)
  • Criteria >> Advanced >> Field >> Frequently Used >> Flag color
  • Condition: “equals”, Value: “<color> Flag” (insert color here)
  • “Add to list”
  • Repeat last 3 steps if you want more than one color in a bucket (I have blue and red both in Action)
  • “OK” >> “OK >> “OK
  • Right-click newly created search folder
  • “Add to favorite folders”
  • Phew!

Empty your Inbox

  • Aggressive deletion / archiving
  • Move emails to sub-folders
  • Use date, conversation and sender groupings to help

Ongoing Process

Dealing with Inbound Mail

  • Deal with the mail if possible
  • Delete it if you don’t need it
  • Move to sub-folder if you don’t need any follow-up
  • Flag it if you do
    • Action by date: Red + reminder
    • Action: Blue
    • Delegated: Purple
    • Deferred: Orange
    • Reference: Green
  • Move it to subfolder
  • Keep the inbox empty

Following Up

  • Use the favorite folders (Action, Deferred, Delegated, and Reference) to find what work you need to do.
  • When you’ve dealt with an item change its flag:
    • No more actions >> remove flag, or green flag (reference)
    • Delegate >> Purple
    • Etc
  • I find it useful to group / order the favorite folders by “In Folder”, but date is also useful

Err, that’s it

3 Replies to “GTD with Outlook”

  1. A few more tricks to consider in Outlook:

    * Every item in Outlook 2003 can have multiple Contacts and multiple Categories attached to it.

    * GTD talks about working in context (ie. where must you do this action?). In Outlook, you can set up contexts in your Master Categories list.

    * Under View/Options for an email message, you can attach either a Category or a Contact to the message. Doing the same thing everywhere else should be relatively obvious.

    * By sorting your tasks by category (context), you can easily answer the question “what can I work on now that I am here?”

    * You can create another Contacts folder (call it Projects) and use it to keep a list of all the projects you are working on (you’ll only use the Name and Notes).

    * If you drag email to the Tasks folder, Outlook will make a task from it. You can then adjust the subject, priority, and due dates for it. Also, add Contacts (Projects) and Categories (Contexts) to the new task.

    * If you look at the Activities tab for a Project, you’ll see all messages, tasks, meetings, etc. for that Project. Great for seeing how a project is doing.

    * In Outlook, Notes are a good place to make checklists of the things you are working on. The Note can also have a Category and/or Contact associated with it.

    * In Outlook, Journal is a good place to log all of the things that you have done. The Journal entry can have a Category and a Contact associated with it.

    Considering that this is a Microsoft product, it’s surprising how flexible to accommodate all the ideas above.


  2. Good tips … I’ve always found the adding and viewing of categories in outlook a bit cumbersome. So I’ve been tending to use subdirectories for the “projects” view. This does have the major limitation of items only being able to appear in one project.

    I like the idea of “contexts” but if I’m using outlook (for me at least) it’s 99% likely that I’m at my desk with a computer and a phone … so I have less use for it. If you’ve got mobile access then I’m sure the contexts come into play more

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