Google Gmail and GTD®

Methods to Stay Organized and On Task with Google Gmail and GTD®

For your consideration, I’ve outlined my methods for processing emails and staying organized and on task with email — in my case, Gmail for work. If you’re looking for options to stay more organized and your inbox is still the primary source of internal and client communication, this article can help.

First, a little bit about Getting Things Done (GTD®), if you’re not familiar. GTD equips its practitioners with methods to organize and manage all of their personal and professional organization challenges. I’m using the GTD framework for the purposes of managing corporate Gmail and work-related tasks. This article outlines the process that helps me stay organized and on task, and maybe these methods will work for you. Sharing is caring. See the “Related Info” section below for links to related resources.

What you’ll need:

  • Gmail Account
  • Gmail Labels
  • Gmail Tasks
  • Gmail Calendar

Note: The following methodology is directly Influenced by David Allen’s, Getting Things Done (GTD). If you’re not familiar with GTD, see the “Related Info” section below for more information. Getting Things Done and GTD are registered trademarks of The David Allen Company and the following recommendations are not endorsed by The David Allen Company.

Before We Get Started

Who wrote this article?
I’m in the software industry and I manage a high volume of internal and external emails with ongoing project management requirements. Email is still the primary communication method across my channels.

Does this article apply to me?
This article applies to Gmail users who manage high volumes of email (primarily from desktop or laptop) and who are looking for a better way to stay organized and/or employ Getting Things Done (GTD) methods to Gmail.

Will this help me if I use some other email service?
Most likely, yes. If your email service allows you to label (or tag), folder and star (or flag) your emails, the same methods can be applied. Not all email services have a Tasks feature built into them, so you might consider creating a “@Tasks” label or folder — or, explore the many task list plugins available for various email services. Ideally, you want the ability to customize the task name from the email and link the task with the email that provides the context. That’s a big bonus of the built-in Gmail Tasks feature.

But what about OmniFocus or other task and project management software options?
Sure, there are lots of great task and project management tools, but my professional communication is anchored by email. On a project by project basis, the choice of project management software is not necessarily up to me. Therefore, I don’t want to duplicate efforts by managing the same tasks or projects in two or more different systems. I would caution against that practice.

What are the goals of this methodology?
My goals are as follows; to avoid surprises lurking in emails, to use the paths of least resistance to stay organized, to use the fewest tools to achieve the most organization, and to have everything in its place and organized by the task required, what comes next and who owns the next action.

When these goals are achieved, it means that all emails and tasks have been “processed” and therefore:

  • Emails are responded to, tasks are completed.
  • If a task will take more than a couple minutes, the task is delegated or deferred
  • When no action is required, the email is either archived, starred, or put in a folder for future reference.
  • When you wake up each morning, you know where to begin, what you’re waiting for and what comes next.

Getting Started

Using Gmail Tasks
First, launch Tasks in Gmail and set-up your primary tasks list. You can create more than one list, but I maintain just one tasks list called “TO DO” and it’s home to all my important tasks. For project-based tasks lists, I use a Google Sheet or, more often, the required project management software (e.g. Basecamp, activeCollab).

For all other day-to-day tasks resulting from an email that cannot be handled immediately, I create a task in my TO DO list, which is always anchored to the bottom right of my Gmail window.

My Process is All About Processing
Beyond client and internal email, my Gmail Inbox is where everything work-related goes to be processed (e.g. notes to self, proposals). As emails come in (and when I can get to my inbox), the primary question becomes, is the email actionable?

If the answer is Yes:

Do it: If I can handle the question/task/request in just a couple minutes, I just do it, then I archive the email. If someone has a follow-up question, no problem, the email conversation comes back to the top of my inbox and the process begins again; is the new email actionable?

Delegate it: If the next action or response is owned by someone else, I move the the email conversation to my @Waiting folder/label. If someone responds, the email conversation comes back to the top of my inbox and I determine, once again, is the email response actionable? And the process begins again.

Defer it: If it’s a task or conversation that should happen at a specific place and time, I add it to the calendar. My calendar is a “hard landscape” as David Allen calls it — if something is on the calendar, action is taking place in support of completing a task at that specified time. If it’s a task that does not require a calendar event, but will take time and research, it’s added to my TO DO task list (i.e. using the “More Actions” + “Add to Tasks” function in Gmail). If the email requires a project plan or multiple actions related to a specific project, I use a Google Sheet template or the required project management software (e.g. Basecamp, activeCollab).

If the answer is No:

Do you need this email, does it concern you?
If the answer is no, archive it or delete it.

Is it something that you’d like to read or review later?
Star or flag it to review at a later time.

Is it something you’re unlikely to need in the foreseeable future?
Sort it into a reference folder or apply a contextual label of your choice, or just archive it and use search to find it later.

Your Daily Reviews

TO DO — Your TO DO list is in your face, it’s anchored in your Gmail Inbox browser window, you’re actively working from it and you can click the “Related email” link on any task if you need a reminder of its context.

@Waiting — If you “delegated” an email and you’re waiting on someone else for the next action, simply go to your @Waiting folder/label to see a list of what you’re waiting for, then contact the appropriate people to prompt follow-ups on and keep the ball moving.

Project Management Software — Many of us own and manage projects in Google Sheets, Basecamp, activeCollab, etc. If you have a series of interconnected tasks tied to a project, this is still the best place to manage and prioritize those tasks and to create and track milestones and timelines.

Your Weekly Reviews

Starred or Flagged — This is the information that is not mission critical, you did not delegate it to someone, and there’s no next action planned, but you want to revisit it or dig into it some more in the future. This is a list to review only as time and other priorities allow.

Your Calendar as a Hard Landscape

David Allen writes, “You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments…That’ll be much easier if the only things in there are those you absolutely have to get done on that day.”

All calendar items should be considered the hard landscape of your day — that is, more or less immovable objects. Refrain from blocking off recurring calendar time for soft landscape items like “Catching up with Emails” or “Doing Research”. Those are tasks you perform between the hard landscape items in your day. Keeping soft landscape items off your calendar will remove clutter and reduce ambiguity as to whether you may actually be available to join a meeting during those blocked hours.

Note: As you add tasks to and review your TO DO list, you can add a “Due date” to tasks in Google Calendar. Either hold yourself accountable to those dates or don’t put them in your calendar. Again, it’s a matter of ensuring your calendar is a source of truth for you and your colleagues.

The Gmail “Conversation” Challenge

So, you’ve processed all your new email and everything is complete or in its rightful place and you know what’s ahead of you, but then someone else responds to an email conversation and suddenly the processed email conversation is back at the top of your inbox. It might feel like you’re processing the same conversation too often, but it’s as easy clicking the Archive button or choosing Mute from the “More Actions” dropdown menu — i.e. if the email conversation no longer requires your participation.

Now What?

Processing your emails and getting all of your tasks and next actions planned provides peace of mind and the process itself can feel very rewarding, but avoid complacency. There’s a fine line between knowing exactly what you need to do next and knowing exactly what you’re not doing. Also, the daily review process is critical to your success. Review your task lists and @Waiting emails and request responses and updates as required to maintain momentum.

Remember: “What’s the next action?” is the key question to ask and answer throughout the day and if you’re not delegating or deferring the next action, you’re doing it.

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Note: Getting Things Done and GTD are registered trademarks of The David Allen Company and my recommendations are not endorsed by The David Allen Company.


Podcast recommendation:
Back to Work hosted by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. This show has helped me in countless ways, go start with episode #1.