Zero Sum Game

Update: For a laugh, I recommend watching NGTD (via John Gruber), which is the best satire on the way GTD can go haywire I've seen yet.

After months of Outlook judo, I've been re-thinking my GTD-inspired workflow and am now gravitating towards a simpler, more mail-centric approach that revolves around three things:

  • A Current search folder that shows all messages in both my Inbox and Sent Items, set to display them in threaded/conversation view.
  • An Actionable search folder that shows all unread or flagged messages in Current (grouped by flag color in Outlook).
  • A Follow Up search folder that shows all flagged messages outside my Inbox (i.e., project folders, archives, etc.).

That's it. No contexts, no tasks, no nothing. I still use tasks, but only because I like to keep a record of some activities and use them as a tickler. I will add new tasks via my Blackberry when on the move and review them periodically, but tasks, for me, do not have anything to do with actions.

Actions are e-mail, and e-mail is the only context that matters, because in my line of work there are entirely too many different possible contexts, and no time to do fancy classification - you need to get stuff done, period, not faff about with technological toys.

And, incidentally, if you can't get your work and home contexts straight, you need a whole lot more than GTD to straighten out your life.

This is something I have set up both at home (in and at work (on Outlook), although it is somewhat easier to set up in Outlook, since's smart folders won't let you set up complex and/or combinations (so I basically set up a search folder that searches another search folder).

The whole process currently works more or less like this:

I first go through Actionable, read, reply to or file the new messages I can act upon immediately, and flag the ones that need further attention (i.e., the ones I can't deal with immediately).

Exchange is great for this, since I can actually flag things with different colors and they will show up on any Outook session (whereas will only use the plain IMAP flag, and colors won't be propagated to different Macs).

In Outlook 2003, I typically file things as:

  • Red: Deal with ASAP
  • Yellow: Get more info, then do something
  • Orange: Deferred/waiting on someone - expecting a reply
  • Blue: Personal (practically zero, typically HR or internal procedure stuff)
  • Green: No action required, for later reference
  • Purple: On hold

On the Mac, I'm pretty much stuck with a single flag (remember, coloring messages is not propagated via IMAP to other Macs), but it's vastly easier to deal with my personal e-mail (when I get around to it, of course) than with my work mail, so one's enough.

If I happen to be on my Blackberry (which can't see search folders or flag messages), I simply mark things as unread to make sure they show up in Actionable when I get to my desktop.

After that first pass, most of the work is done. Whatever remains in Actionable is stuff that needs further interaction with people, can't get done straight away, etc., so I leave it flagged. Everything else vanishes from view.

At the end of the day, I go into Current. It by now usually holds several parallel conversations, conveniently grouped in threads that I can file away as (and this is the key bit) a complete topic - i.e., when I file stuff away, it's over and done with, and this way I make sure I file away all the relevant messages in one swoop.

Since 99% of all corporate e-mail users are top-posters and never delete the remainder of the message, it is often enough to keep only the last message of a topic - everything else is junked.

I also file away anything older than one week - things that are flagged for later reference or "on hold" inclusive - these are the ones that will show up on the Follow Up folder, to be picked off one by one when I have the time to deal with them.

So far, it works (it's getting me through one of the most e-mail-intensive periods of my recent professional life), and (the best bit as far as I'm concerned) is that I need zero extra software to master my Inbox.