GTD - E-Mail Folders or Tags

The problem: You lose a lot of time by reading again and again the same e-mails.
You know the problem that you are browsing through your e-mails looking on which you need to respond or on which you have to do something and while reading a lot of subject lines and opening some mails because you don't remember well what's in it you remember that you already looked at that several times?

I did not know that I have that problem until I knew of the GTD folder sytem and then observing my own behavior and impressions while reading my mail.

The reason: Growing inboxes and the amount of e-mail arriving let you loose the overview.
You looked at your mails only 10 minutes ago and you remember that the second mail in your inbox was important and needs action. Then the phone rang and you gave a short information but now some other mails arrived and you have to search again that important e-mail. Your inbox is a very dynamic thing and to retain the overview is difficult.

The solution: Simple GTD folder system.
Until a few days ago I avoided introducing GTD folders because in my opinion it was too complicated because of too many folders. Then I read that people using simplified systems and so I tried with these:
  1. Action ... All the mails that needs an action - so I have to do something
  2. Waiting ... I am waiting for a response or some action and confirmation of others
  3. Hold / Reference ... Mails I probably need later when working on the things in the action folder.
  4. Later ... Not so important but interesting things I want to look at when is time.
  5. Current ... Archive of the current year (subfolder for each client - or project - as it fits better to your business).
  6. Archive ... Archive of the older years (subfolder for each year and then for each client - or project). If you are using Outlook you should export the older e-mails should be exported to a PST file on the disk (on your server home drive). If you have a Linux based mail server then usually it doesn't mind and you can keep everything on your server always available (even using the webmail).
I actually named them including the number prefix to have them in actually this order.

For every e-mail that needs longer operation I do put an entry to the calender and move the mail to the "Hold / Reference" folder. Only the mails with smaller amount of work for the time "in between" or for the time dedicated to e-mail replying I put into the "Action" folder. This is to prevent double occurrence of to-do items (in action folder and calendar).

So I use the combination of calendar and simplified GTD folder system and to prevent from double "reminders" e-mails with a short work are kept in the action folder and every longer work will be scheduled in the calendar putting the e-mail to the reference folder or copying the text directly to the calendar (archiving the original mail).

Depending on your job you might face different types of e-mail conversations:
  • More e-mails producing lesser work
    In this case schedule larger time blocks for "responding to e-mails".

  • Less e-mails producing more work.
    If this is the case then define each e-mail as a single task and schedule a time block for each e-mail.
  • More e-mails belonging to few "topics", "issues" or "tasks".
    Group them to the tasks or projects where they belong (have appropriate subfolders in your archive folder) - put only the main e-mail that actually triggers the work (e.g. a final confirmation within a longer e-mail thread) to the action folder and the rest to the Hold / Reference folder (or archive them if all the relevant information is already included in the e-mail containing the decision).

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