Last week I have made changes in the way I process email. Adapting it more towards ‘Getting Things Done’, which I had avoided doing for years, and making some changes in daily habits around it. Now that I made the change, I can’t quite understand what kept me from doing it, even though before I thought my needs would not be met with a new routine.

Resisting change
As I use Gmail and have the notion I really shouldn’t, I mentally postponed changing my routines until ‘after replacing Gmail’, assuming I would otherwise either increase the cost of leaving Gmail (by having routines more deeply connected to its functionalities), or I’d find a replacement that already contained a better flow by default, making designing change now a waste of time. I know, neither make much sense upon closer consideration. Likely the real reason I made the change now, is having come back from a long vacation, and not many obligations yet as most clients are still away themselves. That, and receiving an external trigger right at that moment.

The trigger
That trigger was getting a message from Martin Roell, that one of his colleagues, Rob van den Brand, is offering a free download of how to deal with email. I downloaded it ouf of curiosity to see if it contained anything new in terms of suggestions. At first glance it didn’t, it was the GTD style approach I already knew (using the 2 minute rule, sorting into piles to reply, read, do and other etc.). Then a few days later a follow-up arrived with a few behavioral tactics to help make the mechanism work. The first one was unsubscribe to a lot of stuff, which led me to review my automated filtering, which led to re-evaluating the original GTD method, which led to implementing it……

The old routine
Over the years I kept all my e-mail in my inbox, always. Piling, never filing (tagging I do). The original reason for that was that my first mobile e-mail app would not let me easily access and search archived mail, only what was in my inbox would be readily available. The first step of my mail process is usually on my mobile.

From the newly arrived mail, I would ‘star’ those I thought would need some sort of follow-up. Things that don’t interest me I would leave unread but not throw out. This would be my basic triage method. I also have various filtering rules that label incoming mail (apart from ‘starred’) according to what part of my professional activities they represent (my company, my fablab stuff etc.) Using Gmail’s multiple inbox feature, those stars and labels were presented on my laptop screen as separate lists next to the main inbox.

At some point during the day I would open my mail (Gmail’s web interface) on my laptop and:

  • mark all remaining unread mail as read
  • work through the starred items
  • look at/answer mail while working on a specific professional context (1 of the inboxes)

The problem with this was that a starred mail could still mean many things (migh be interesting, immediate action, little or lots of work, read, keep in mind etc.) I basically needed to reevaluate every single mail, every time I opened up the ‘starred’ list. Over time that list would grow with unprocessed items from the past, becoming a ineffective mental drag, except for the recently starred messages. Also some of the multiple inboxes had survived beyond their waned usefulness due to changing focus and activities, and I had difficulty putting them to new good use.

The new routine
My current mobile app (the place where I do my first mail triage) fully supports labeling messages and accessing archived mails. Functionality I wasn’t putting to good use. So that makes it possible to do more detailed and better triage on incoming mail. I now, following the GTD material I mentioned above:

  • use many more filtering rules to automatically process and label incoming mails, alerts, mailers etc.
  • have unsubscribed a wide range of mailers connected to long time ago interests
  • have moved some quarter million mail exchanges of the past years from the inbox to the archive
  • label the remaining few mails that still reach my inbox with 1_reply, 2_todo, 3_toread, 4_waiting and other assorted relevant labels (such as ‘bookkeeping’, ‘opendata’, ‘acquisition’ etc.) so they can be more easily found back when needed
  • create new filtering rules when a mail arrives that warrants a filter
  • empty the inbox by moving all labeled and remaining unlabeled mail into the archive

The original multiple inboxes I now show below new mail, in stead of to the right where I had them for the past years. The multiple inboxes now show the reply/todo/read/waiting labels. That looks like this:


Key take-aways and needs
Changing my mail process and method of triage turned out to be easy. It moved the decision what to do with an e-mail forward 1 step, and made it part of the triage. (Before I would only star a mail and then decide later). This makes my normal daily time slot for mail sufficient to actually deal with the contents of that mail.

Main ‘win’ is that my mail interface is much less noisy, both due to heavier automated filtering and removing processed messages from the inbox. Before I would see whatever was left over from ‘before’ and always have a full page of messages in front of me. That clutter is now 5 short lists, with only one of those lists needing attention at any given time. All other stuff from mailing lists are available under a label/tag, when I decide I want to catch up but never clog up the inbox.

My main demand, being able to do triage ‘on the go’, is still being met (and more automated than before). The reduced clutter also feels like it might be a benefit when I move out of Gmail.

The only thing to still do is to much better connect the list of mails labeled to-do to my actual task management tool (Things, by Cultured Code) and making sure they get the right follow-up that way. I could probably automate that, but haven’t figured out how to do that yet. This may mean that the to-do part of the mail flow will actually disappear from my gmail altogether.

Working with a Getting Things Done system in the past 9 months or so leads to a few thoughts I’d like to share.
Because it seems to me there is a systemic weakness in the concept of GTD. This does not mean GTD is not bringing me benefits, on the contrary. It does limit its scope of effectiveness though.
GTD, what it does
GTD is about making lists, more effective lists, to manage your time/life better.
The biggest benefit in GTD, as I understand it, is in not asking you to attach priorities or times to activities in your list, as time management systems generally do. It assumes that once you have good lists you will know what to do, based on time and energy available, as well as your own sense of urgency. This is a true diamond, as it trusts you to be human, and doesn’t demand the conveyor belt mindless behaviour other time management systems ask for (“once you have the right list, you’re on mindless autopilot”)
The other big benefit of GTD is its multiple feedback loops. The short one, shared with other time management systems, informing you about tasks, and tasks that are waiting for someone else. The longer feedback loop(s), the reviews, allow you to step away from the task units, and look at your goals if they are still valid, and if your tasks still serve those goals. This helps you prevent to be running because you are busy, without knowing why you’re busy and what it’s all for. Doing good reviews (both back and forward looking, so review is a partly misleading term), and doing them regularly however is not easy.
GTD, what it does not
The biggest problem of GTD is that it is based on lists. Because list making is an old and time-honoured information strategy. GTD in essence says: if your inbox and the amount of tasks is growing and your life is getting more complicated make better lists.
That amounts to, when someone does not understand you, repeating yourself saying it LOUDER. In stead of choosing different words to convey your message. GTD is trying to apply the list making strategy better, in response to a failing list making strategy.
However when I see what I and others are trying to do with GTD it is navigating an increasingly fragmented and complex environment. The root causes are quantitative rises in the connections between people (small world), the speed of change (world becoming a metropole), and the amount of information (information abundance). The internet, and other preceding media, as infrastructure play a very big role in these quantitative shifts.
Quantitative changes, qualitative answers
These quantitative shifts are by necessity begetting qualitative answers, because conventional methods (like making lists) stop scaling. Web2.0 tools have some of those qualitative answers (active sharing and sense making, social relations as information filter, networks of meaning) as design principles. Other qualitative answers are becoming part of our information skills (pattern recognition, knowing when to stay focussed amidst distraction, knowledge as being connected/networked, learning as building networks).
I find I apply those qualitatively different information strategies before I can get to the level of things where GTD lists make sense. I hunt for patterns in my RSS feeds, and then those patterns become inbox items. The RSS feed items themselves are not suited to treat as inbox items, simply because the items themselves are not the relevent units of information for me.
I already have marked 90% of my incoming e-mail as read without reading them, before I get to seeing them as true inbox items that warrant a decision to respond to, put on my task list, send to someone else, or delete.
I also find that a very important piece of my work does not get affected by GTD at all: staying aware of my social network and context. Keeping track of the people I know and the communities I am part of is my premier source of learning, of landing projects, of bringing my goals closer, and it is all to a very large extent based on peripheral sense. It is based on not looking directly at it, nor on focussing on it, but glancing at it,. Like the way you keep track of what is happening in a pub by glancing around, while you are actually focussing on the conversation with the person in front of you. Or like the way in the dark you see more out of the corner of your eye, than right in front of you. Like with my RSS feeds this is pattern hunting. And only the patterns I find ever reach my inbox where I focus on them to decide what to do next. Tuning my antennas on my surroundings, and pro-actively define what type of patterns I am currently especially interested in also takes a large chunk of time and energy.
This creates a scope where GTD is effective but only after the problems caused by the size, fragmentation and speed of the world around me have already been dealt with using other strategies. GTD gives me very effective lists, but only after I have created a qualitatively better ‘inbox’ myself. GTD can deal with complicated stuff very well, but I have to deal with complexity myself first.
How GTD could be better
One way in which the GTD method could become more valuable is if I could get patterns from it about what I do, that became inbox items again. Another if I could shape my GTD reviews to help me tune my antennas for the peripheral vision better as I described above. Something to think about further