GTD email management: Temporary Reference information
David Allen advocates the use of email folders such as "_Actions" and "_Waiting For" for managing emails. (I personally use the underscore "_" instead of the "@" symbol because the underscore looks less like an alphabetical character and therefore doesn't distract my attention, yet has the same useful function of moving the name to the top of an auto-sorted folder list.)
Anyhow, another email folder that I've found very handy is "_Temporary Reference" (or "@Temporary Reference"). This is a great place to hold emails that don't require any specific action but are needed for short-term reference -- such as the itinerary for your upcoming business travel, or the automated reply from your colleague whose out-of-office email contains contact info for people with whom you may need to communicate in her absence. When your business travel is complete or your colleague has returned from their absence, you can simply delete those emails during your next Weekly Review (or file them permanently if they must be archived for future retrieval).
Just in case it's helpful, here is my complete list of top-level GTD email folders (using Outlook 2007):
_DELEGATED / WAITING
_DESKTOP TO PROCESS
_READ / REVIEW
_SOMEDAY / MAYBE
(Due to the significant majority of my work that is conducted through email, I've chosen to make email folders for things like Read / Review and Someday / Maybe -- rather than creating a new Task in Outlook every time I receive an email needs to be read / reviewed, etc.)
Hope this helps!
I do the same thing
I call mine "1Upcoming Events". In Lotus Notes, I can very quickly move an email from my inbox to this folder using keystrokes. I put the "1" in front so I can hit a single key to select the folder from the dropdown list. Reviewing and tidying up this folder is part of my weekly review checklist, along with review/preview calendar.
I do the same thing with "2Waiting For" and "3Promises" folders. Promises are things that are relatively quick to do, but that I'm not likely to get to on the day. When I email my promised timeline, I save it to this folder. I review the folder every morning as I'm setting my priorities for the day.
Works a treat.
I move emails into various named folders, some of which are set to automatically delete the emails after 1 month or 1 year etc. Emails with logistics about upcoming events can go there, and I don't have to spend any time or thought deleting them afterwards.
How do you deal with backlog?
Getting email to empty seems impossible for me.
I have about 300 unread emails, some in 2 personal accounts, some in a work account.
Yes, I have set up the folder system and rules so that specific list serves go to the specific folders. I rarely delete these and have become numb to the whole system. I spent one 8 hour day at a coffee shop doing nothing but filing and/or deleting old emails back to 2008. Yes I have created the Action/Reference folders, put some emails there and have never opened the folders. This has become such a problem that the only satisfaction I get when checking an account of folder is when I can delete something I know is trash. So many list serves are replies back channel, and then another email apologizing for the reply all instead of replying back channel. This turns me off and gives me an excuse not to open many.
This is such a mess. Has anyone come out from under this much back log without changing your email address and just starting fresh? I am too afraid to delete everything older than a year because I don't even know what it is or if I'll ever need to use it. For example, I have a file that says "unsorted" which I created in 2009. Although I've never opened it, I can't bring myself to delete it.
Am I beyond help?
I know the feeling. It can be tough. I think I had 900 unread emails in my Gmail Inbox when I first started GTD. These days (three years later), my inbox is generally empty once or twice a day. I say this to give you hope.
From your comments, I think the really revealing thing you say is that the only source of relief you get is when you can put things in the 'trash'. I would honestly spend sometime meditating on why this is the case.
My guess is that the relief comes from having made a final, and trust-worthy decision about these emails.
My guess is that the problem with the rest of your processing is that you aren't really being honest with yourself: for example, that folder from 2009, I think it's worth saying that it is currently *in the trash (or perhaps a reference folder)* - you haven't looked at it for three years. The question isn't "What am I going to do with it?" The question is "Do I want to take this out of the trash/reference, or am I going to be 100% happy about leaving it there?"
I think that some of the classic self-help literature is useful here: the most powerful word for getting control of your life is the word "No". I get the feeling that you aren't really genuinely saying "No" to lots of things that you know in your heart-of-hearts you aren't going to get to. This creates psychological tension, and means you aren't getting relief from GTD.
My suggestion - and it's just a guess - is that you probably would benefit from having fewer categories you are putting stuff into: it's either (1) trash (delete), (2) reference (archive/put in a folder), (3) next action (and I'd suggest this is stuff you are going to get done in the next 7-10 days, including any reading), and (4) someday/maybe (a set of stuff you commit to reviewing weekly, but which you have for the moment decided to NOT do).
You can have sub-folders of these categories, but I think the thing that will give you real relief is if you can force yourself to decide which of these four categories each email fits into.
Clearly what is probably going to need to happen is that a lot of stuff (99%) is going to go into trash, reference, and someday/maybe - you are going to say 'No' to 99% of stuff. You just have to. It's a fact.
I had a similar experience to you with my physical filing - I had about 20 boxes of files I'd collected over 15 years - and they were completely unorganised. I went through and processed them and put probably 70% in a reference filing system, and about 29% in the trash. In the three years since that filing I've probably consulted those actual files about 3 or 4 times, but boy has my conscience been clear!
Now that I can flag email anywhere, I am moving to a system where I just flag email that will be needed at hand for a short time. Almost everything that is saved ends up in one archive folder for the current year. It works well for me.
No, it's fine.
Originally Posted by Almost Done
I don't think it's necessary to delete old emails. Disk space is cheap. You can just store them forever, or store them and delete them after a few more years. What's important is how you spend your time.
I don't like to delete email, so I don't. I put it into folders where it's
automatically deleted after various periods of time.
You can decide how much time you want to spend on email on a regular
basis, and what benefits you want to get out of it.
You can move your backlog into backlog folders that you might get to later.
You can get a handle on the emails that are coming in on a regular basis now.
You have several choices: either
(1) Spend more time on email regularly, or
(2) Get people to send you fewer emails -- for example, unsubscribe from listservs, or
(3) Handle some of your emails automatically, for example, putting all the emails
from one listserv into a folder which you can just totally ignore if you feel like it, or
(4) Handle your email faster, for example deciding on the basis of the subject
line that an email probably isn't very important and moving it to a folder where
it will be automatically deleted in a year if you don't get around to reading it, or
(5) Make sure nothing important comes in by email: warn people that if
they need to get through to you they need to use snailmail or phone, or
(6) some combination of the above, or
(7) some other clever idea, or
( Continue to have a bunch of unread emails that might contain something important.
I do the email-0 thing at work and I really like it. I haven't gotten to that in
my personal email yet, but am planning to.
You don't have to read all your emails. You can just scan the subject
lines and who they're from and figure out whether there's likely to
be anything important in there. If not, move it to a folder that you
can confidently ignore.
You can even email a few people
telling them that you haven't had time to read their last few emails
and to email you again (or phone or something) if you missed
anything important -- although that might result in even more
emails coming in!
If you can't handle the emails at the rate they're coming in now,
then something needs to change.
What categories of emails, if any, might be actually important? Can
you have those automatically recognized and directed to a specific
folder that you read first -- and then reading the rest becomes
Likely, for you, reducing the number of incoming emails will
be a very helpful strategy. You can just ask people to send
fewer emails. (Emailing them to ask them this, of course ...)
Email is supposed to help you. Figure out what you want it
to be like, and then change it to be like that.
Email Progress thus far...thank you
Thank you for your helpful feedback.
Here is what has worked so far:
Yes, I have put folders for list serves I want to read (again, the perpetual "later"). This has mixed results.
Yes, I have unsubscribed to many list serves. After 64 emails over 4 months, I have definitely decided not to donate more money than I already do for a particular charity.
Yes, I have set up folders. This weekend I discovered some folders were empty, so really not needed anymore. That helps clear the path out of this electronic jungle I have found myself in these past few years.
Yes, I have told people if it is important, call. There are NO saved voicemails on my phone. Why I respond immediately to the phone but not to email is a mystery to me.
Here is what I still need help on:
Should I schedule a 30 min time each day to work ONLY on email? If I think of an email that needs to go out, I can just jot a note and when the 30 mins arrive, do it at that time? The thing that makes email so numbing and yet compelling for me is intermittent reinforcement. This is why gambling is so addicting. Sometimes you win ( a relavant email) and sometimes you lose (spam/junk/jokes/youtube videos of cats).
The flags for follow up for action get buried under the most recent stuff I can't decide on just yet.
Thank you again for your feedback. I have been taking Nick's comments about the word NO and meditating on why I can't be honest with myself about these subject lines.
Please let me know if you think of any other words of wisdom.
The Email Game seems funny and effective!
Did you try The Email Game? Seems funny and effective!