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How to handle email in the GTD system

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  • How to handle email in the GTD system

    Hi all,

    I've spend hours searching online (this forum and others) and I cannot find answers to what I think would be a common process question. How do you handle emails from your 'inbox' folder? Yes, I know the book says to use emails as action reminders, but this breaks down if the email is more than a single 'next action' step (which most are). David Allen doesn't detail how to deal with emails requiring multiple actions.

    The way I understand it from the book, the 'normal' way to process 'to do's' that require more than one step is to

    1. Add them to your projects list
    2. Create a next action.

    So does this mean for every email that comes in that requires more than a single action, I should drag it to a projects folder? Isn't this kind of like a to-do list? Therefore wouldn't it fit better on the Outlook Tasks list?

    So my question is: What is your process for dealing with an incoming email that requires more than one next action?

  • #2
    Some resources

    Hi Matt,

    It can be like trying to find a contact lens in a hay stack to search these forums for something very specific, so let me point you to some resources:

    Becoming Master of your Email Inbox article in Coach's Corner

    Getting Email Under Control article from David

    There are many more resources on GTD Connect as well, including a webinar on managing email, but the two free articles above should give you some good tactical advice.

    If you're on Outlook, I highly recommend the GTD & Outlook whitepaper. There's a whole section on managing email in that too.

    Hope that helps,


    • #3
      re: Multiple-Action Emails

      This is definitely a problem and I think one that hinders effective workflow. Email programs work mainly to display this information but don't actually help users "parse" out the things that they need to do. As a result, users have to constantly re-read threads and cull through reference emails until they find the actionable elements they've been working on or the relevant piece of information they needed to find. Think about how many hours this adds up to and you start to realize just how *unproductive* this can be over years of time.

      In my own case, I designed the Ready-Set-Do! program on the mac in part because I liked the idea of applying the one-at-a-time principle to every aspect of my workflow. RSD allows me to look through an email, find the relevant bits of information, and I can simply select each piece of text and drag and drop them as clippings to my RSD Inbox. Then I can process each one as I see fit. It's a wonderful way to mine emails for what is relevant and dispense with the email (or archive it) once that's done. But I agree with you that more needs to be done in email programs to facilitate this. Afterall, we can't do emails any more than we can do piles. Each bit of information—and not just the email as a whole—has to be parsed into actionable / non-actionable and put into our trusted system. And it would be nice if we could recreate those emails according to those needs after we receive them.

      Really good question!
      Last edited by Todd V; 07-02-2011, 12:13 AM.


      • #4
        A question for Kelly

        Originally posted by kelstarrising View Post

        Your article offers two options for handling actionable e-mails. The first suggests changing the subject to include the action reminder and moving the e-mail to @Action. What if you use a web-based e-mail client that doesn't allow you to edit the subject line of messages you've received from others?

        I suppose you could still move the message to @Action if the existing subject line makes the action reminder self-evident. If it does not, I think you're locked into option two (Action list entry and file e-mail in an Action Support folder). Or do you have another suggestion for implementing option one?




        • #5
          My suggestion for handling long e-mails

          If I receive a large paper or e-mail article that I cannot read and define outcomes and actions within two minutes, by it goes into a "Read and Review" bucket and I continue processing the remainder of my inbox.

          Later, when I have discretionary time, I pull out the article, carefully read it, and capture thoughts (usually on a legal pad) that are triggered as I read it. When I'm finished I process each thought and organize the outcomes and actions into my system. I then either toss the original article or file it as reference or action support material.

          If the message is unclear to the point where I cannot easily ask for clarification over e-mail I'll either call the other party or request a meeting to discuss it.


          You can't always control what others send you, but you can control what you send others. Don't send others e-mail that you hate to receive (i.e. long, monolithic messages with multiple outcomes and actions embedded all over). Look up some tips for writing effective e-mail. Use them and review them from time-to-time.

          As a rule of thumb I always try to write e-mail that can be dispatched under the two minute rule (not always possible) especially if I really want a reply. Sometimes I send send out five or six short e-mails to address smaller parts of a larger topic than one large e-mail to address the whole thing. If what I want to communicate would require a giant e-mail, I consider other means of delivering the message (a meeting, powerpoint presentation, etc).

          Best regards,



          • #6
            What if you use a web-based e-mail client that doesn't allow you to edit the subject line of messages you've received from others?
            That's tricky. Best I've seen is to forward a copy to yourself and edit the subject line that way. It would get tedious, for sure, but it's an option.