After reading some questions recently in the OmniFocus forum, and having read many articles discussing Inbox to Zero over the past couple of years, I thought it might be helpful if I discussed my workflow for taking inbox to zero, which may differ from other application-specific methods out there.
Since I’ve primarily used Nozbe and OmniFocus as my GTD applications, I will discuss how I’ve handled my email inboxes with both of these apps. The procedure I use is generally common to both, and is likely supported by the GTD application that you use. If you are new to GTD you may want to start here.
For those that might be new to the premise of “Inbox to Zero”, let me provide some background before moving on to the details of my workflow. The concept was popularized by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders fame, in a series of articles he posted on the subject in 2006, though by Merlin’s own admission, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology which predated his articles certainly contributed to his ideas on getting your email inbox to zero. You can view a great video of Merlin speaking to Google employees in 2007 about processing email. And Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe, also provides some really simple ideas on processing inboxes on his Productivity Show.
I definitely use GTD methodology and my GTD application to process my inbox to zero. However, I must admit that my idea of processing to zero is a bit different than what most people might think. I’m one of those folks that don’t like to throw anything away. So for me, getting my inbox to zero means that while there is nothing marked “unread” in my inbox, it is never really empty.
While this method requires a very strict adherence to the “read once” rule, and is perhaps less satisfying than an empty inbox, it works for me, and provides a backup in case I’ve missed something. So my inbox is really two things in one. An inbox for unread messages, and a searchable archive for later use when needed. Many would advise me to move the read messages to an archive folder (in fact this is the advice given by Merlin) however to my mind this involves extra effort, which is unecessary if you follow the “read once” rule.
The most important thing I’ve learned about email is that in order for me to stay productive, I need to stay away from my email inbox as much as possible. The only effective way I have found to do that is to schedule several times during the day to specifically process my email, and to turn off the alert that tells me new mail has arrived.
There is one big exception to this rule, there always is, isn’t there? If the message originates from my Senior Management (note the upper case), then I don’t wait to read and process the message. I have made this easier by setting up a rule in my email application that automatically forwards any messages from those individuals to my iPhone as an SMS message. This allows me to stay out of email, except when scheduled, and keep other alerts off, while not worrying about missing important messages from management.
Processing my email inbox requires a simple and seamless way to quickly act on email right in the inbox, without switching applications or dragging messages to other folders. And I need to process email from several different types of applications. At work, I use GroupWise on a Windows machine, at home I use Apple Mail, and while on the run I use my iPhone.
While OmniFocus, and no doubt other GTD applications, have scripts or commands for processing mail directly from inbox to GTD, I’ve found it easier to use the more ubiquitous mail forwarding to handle this task. Most web-based applications like Nozbe provide an email address that can be used to forward mail directly to your GTD inbox. With OmniFocus, a rule can be set up in Apple mail to do the same thing when a message is forwarded to the mail account accessed by your Mac.
My workflow is quite simple, and works on any computer or smartphone with access to email, and will work with any GTD application that provides a special email address, rule or script to handle messages sent to it.
What is it? I start by looking at the first unread message in my inbox and ask the following questions, which will determine the action taken.
- Is it actionable?
- If so, how long will it take?
- Does this message belong in my GTD?
If the answer to #1 and #3 are No, the message is marked read (automatically since I clicked on the message) and will be retained in the archive, (remember, my inbox is my archive, so I do nothing more). In fact, in many cases this determination is made by simply reading the subject line or noting the sender’s address (think junkmail).
If the answer to #1 is Yes, then I immediately ask question #2. If the answer to #2 is less than 2 minutes, then I do the action, and move on.
If the action will take more than 2 minutes, then the message is immediately forwarded to my GTD inbox. At times, there will be a combination of an action and sending to GTD, e.g. a simple reply, which is sent to both the sender and my GTD inbox for additional action; or delegating a task, which is forwarded to the delegate and to my GTD inbox to provide followup action on the “waiting for” task.
I also receive messages that, while they don’t require an action on my part, I want to keep with a project as documentation or notes. In these cases the answer to #1 is No, but the answer to #3 is Yes, and I simply forward the message to my GTD inbox.
Remember the “read once” rule and read each message only one time, answer each of the three questions and take the appropriate action on each read message. If you run out of time before reading all mail, don’t cheat. Instead, come back to your inbox later and begin where you left off.
Processing the GTD Inbox
While processing my email inbox, I don’t worry about any of the GTD details, e.g. in what project the message will be filed, or the context, due dates, flags, etc. None of those details are necessary while processing email. Yes, I know that many apps let you place syntax in the subject or body of the message to automatically file messages with a specific project, assign a context or due date and the like. But for me, that would significantly slow down inbox to zero.
One or two times a day, I will go to my GTD inbox and process all of the messages sent there, along with tasks that are manually entered in the inbox throughout the day. I assign all the proper GTD elements at that time to bring my GTD inbox to zero. This helps me get email done quickly while in my email inbox, and provides real focus on projects and tasks when I’m in my GTD inbox.
Sending Email to GTD
The details of how to forward email to your GTD will vary depending on the application you use. Check your GTD application’s help files, blog or forum for more information. For those using Nozbe or OmniFocus, I’ve provided some details for those applications here.
Details for sending email to Nozbe using Nozbe email account.
You will need to start by enabling the rule in OmniFocus Preferences by following these steps.
- Open OmniFocus Preferences from the main menu.
- Click on the Mail button in the toolbar.
- Check the box for “Add Mail Rule to create OmniFocus actions”.
- Enter the filter for mail processing (I use – – at the beginning of the subject line).
- Enter the approved addresses from which an action can be added to the inbox.
After setting the mail preferences, you can send or forward any message from your email account to the email account processed on your Mac using Apple Mail. As long as the subject starts with – – (or your filter method), it will be added to your GTD inbox.
If you don’t already have a system to get inbox to zero, perhaps some of the techniques I’ve detailed in this post will help you develop a workflow of your own. When you do, you will find, as I have, that processing inbox to zero is the perfect complement to GTD, and will enhance the liberating affect that GTD provides. Thanks for reading, John.