Skill - How an Outlook "action" folder makes you better/smarter/faster

Why do "context sensitive" email folders make me better/smarter/faster at processing email?

  • I know just where the most important actions I have to take in email are.
  • It keeps my inbox uncluttered so I can see the important new stuff quickly.
  • It is a system for efficiently getting back to things that are important, but I cannot do right away because of the zillions of interruptions that happen during my work day.

I primarily use five Folders (the first four are in one pst file) that provide a graded ramp to clearing out my inbox folder. This approach is based on David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.  I can send notes and links for that book to get those interested in learning more about  the concepts. Just send me an email.

  • Action (for anything that takes longer than a few minutes to process).  
    • The action may involve writing a response, calling someone, or just reading a large attachment, I often change the subject line of emails in this folder so the action is clear if the sender has not taken the time to do that for me, which, sadly, is most of the time). You must regularly review the contents of this folder to make sure you are not failing to take the action to which you have committed.
    • (18 Feb update) I do use a sub-folder of "Action" that I call "Upcoming Events." I put meeting notice emails here (with subjects that include day, time, location, title, and possibly action that I owe). If I get just a few (less than five) emails associated with the same meeting, I make sure they have similar/same subjects and that way all the read aheads are in one place. If I am getting more than five emails related to a particular meeting, then I create another sub-folder of "Action" that is the title of the meeting or project that has meetings associated with it and dump all the emails there.
  • Waiting for
    • For actions I have given other people or when there are things/info I need from others to take my action, usually copied from my "sent" folder by dragging with the "control" key pressed to make a copy that I can permanently delete later, you must clear this out
      regularly so emails do not pile up here.
  • Really deleted
    • Any email over 40k in size, including those I send with attachments cleared out of my "sent" folder frequently, dumped every 30 days (after I let them accumulate for 3 months or so) to keep from exceeding email profile settings, a real NMCI life saver.
  • Templates
    • This is a sub folder of "drafts" containing repeat emails that I typically send, like this one and the one I use most often: teaching people how to improve their subjects.
  • Archives
    • I keep separate off-line folders in Outlook for "sent" and "deleted" email, the only folders I need since Outlook has such a powerful "advanced find" function. I do monthly "sweeps" of all sent/deleted emails older than 60 days into these folders.

This is a very simple, flexible, and powerful system. (18 Feb update) I do not use a filing system for storing emails long term. I put all emails I send (less than 90K in length) and all emails I receive (same size limit) in SENT/DELETED archives respectively. Anything greater than 90K goes in "Really Deleted" after I save the attachment if I think I will need it later. I don't use folders to file email because I use Outlook's Advanced Search tool instead. I also practice the email ninja methods explained on the 43 Folders website by Merlin Mann (also available for emailing upon request). I don't use my inbox to hold projects and tasks that will take me some time to finish. My general methodology, inspired by GTD as noted above, is to quickly process everything in the inbox (moving some to the folders described above, responding to what I can) and try to get the number of messages in the box to zero as often as I can.

How to weed wack your inbox down to zero (from GTD Times)

The good news with the GTD model is that the thought process is the same no matter how something comes in (email, paper etc.) But since email plagues so many people, we’ll use that for our example.

1. Open a new email.

2. Ask yourself, “What is it?” and “Is it actionable?”

3.  If it’s NOT Actionable, then delete it, store it in a Reference email folder, or incubate it on Someday/Maybe if you think you’ll have action with it in the future.

4.  If it IS Actionable and will take you multiple steps to complete, ask yourself, “What’s my desired outcome?” Track that outcome on a Projects list.

5.  Now ask yourself, “What’s my next action?” Then you’ve got 3 choices:

  1. Do it now (if it will take less than 2 minutes)
  2. Delegate it now (if someone else can do it, track on Waiting For if you need to)
  3. Defer it to a Next Action list or folder (if it will take longer than 2 minutes and store that email in a place (other than “In”) you know you can easily get back to when you need to take action.)

If it’s got multiple next actions that can be done simultaneously, track each one of those. If you have “future actions” or dependencies, and this is a project, those can be stored with your project plans.

In case you think getting your inbox to zero is not possible, I do it all the time (my Action folder gets pretty big, but that is okay because I know it only contains the emails that require action from me and I fix the subjects to make sure the action is obvious just by looing at the subject).