Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Outlook and GTD (Process Part 1)

Now almost everything should be hitting Outlook and it should be as far from inbox zero as you can possibly get.  Now we will get to the hard part, well not really hard, but nit picky stuff.  I am going to assume you have added all your recurring events to your tasks list and have reminders set appropriately.   As well, I am going to assume you have a general knowledge on how to navigate Outlook’s various features.  Also, because I use OneNote, I will assume that you will use it too.

This method of organization relies heavily on the use of Outlook’s categories,  on the use of the search folders to find the categories, and the shortcut bar to minimise the amount of screen real estate dedicated to organizing our inbox.

Outlook’s categories are used as contexts.  Physical places where I typically do the work has the “@” prefix before the place, @ Home, @ Out, @ Office, etc.  If I am waiting for someone else to do something, but want to keep track of it, I prefix their name a “^”  symbol,  thus ^ Spouse, ^ Kid, etc.  I do not have a “someday/maybe” category in Outlook because those are typically projects by nature and are kept in OneNote.  I also use categories for items that are for information, but there is no prefix, for example, Bills.  So the task “pay power bill” has two categories attached to it, both @Computer and Bills.  This is so I can search (using a search folder) both the “Bills” category for a quick overview of my bills, and also will let me see what I need to do when I am at the computer by opening the “@ Computer” search folder.

All my tasks are synced with my Blackberry with their software, and I can filter the task view to just look at the “@ Out” tasks or any category I need at the time.  This means that I now have a list of things to do while I am out that is  easily accessible. 

Now lets set up the automated portion of your reading, namely emails and RSS feeds.  First, Set outlook to open to the calendar window every time I opened it. (Tools—> Options—> Other Tab—> Advanced Options) Click the “Browse”  Button next to “Start up in this folder:”  and select you primary calendar.  Also while you are here make sure the “Sync RSS feeds to the Common Feed List” is checked if you use IE for feeds.  Be sure the Task working hours per day, and week numbers fit your schedule and click “OK”  and “OK” again. to exit options.


Next click “view” on the menu bar and ensure the navigation pane is “on.”  Also ensure the “Todo Bar” is “normal” and the task list is checked. ( I unchecked the rest, but you may prefer not to.)

image image

Next, click on the Shortcut link at the bottom of the Navigation Pane.  Click “Add New Group” and label it “Next Actions”  Repeat three more times, and label the new groups  Incoming, Reading, and Filing Cabinet. I organized the groups so that Next Actions is at the top of the list to indicate that this is a time management system and not an email system, but you are free to organize them how ever you want. 

Next click the folder list icon at the bottom of the Navigation Pane ( It looks like a folder) and browse to the search folder list.  I deleted all the existing search folders and started from scratch, but once again if the folders are searching relevant things for you just use them.  One thing to remember, Search folders do not span multiple PST’s.  If you have different IMAP or HTML mail set up each will have it’s own PST file and will need to have its own Search folder set up.

To create a search folder for, say Twitter and Facebook, right click on “Search Folders” and then “New Search Folder…”


The new Search Folder window will pop up.  Scroll down to “Create a Custom Search Folder” then click “Choose…”  (Do this rather than use the ready made criteria  because if you want to modify the criteria at a later date you can.) Now the Custom Search Folder window appears.  Give your folder a name, say “Tweets & Updates” and then click the “Criteria…” button.  You can now browse the tabs and pick which attributes you want this search folder to search for.  For simplicities sake, I will check “only Items that are: unread”


Click OK and you are back to Custom Search Folder window.  Click “Browse…” and un check the root folder and the “Search subfolders”  box.  Next expand the RSS Feeds and check the Folder of the Feeds you want to view, in this case the Tweets folder and the XXX Friends Status updates folder.


Click OK all the way back out and you now have a search folder that will show you all the unread tweets and status updates from Facebook. (For instructions on how to get the Status updates from Facebook Click Here.)

Rinse and repeat for each grouping of feeds you have and slice and dice the criteria until you have a search folder system that works for you. I read blogs from about twenty or so sources, with each one posting on average five or six posts a day.  This is in addition to the tweets and status updates from Facebook.  The Feeds cover a variety of topics, so I have a search folder named by the topics covered for each group of related feeds that only pulls from those particular feeds.

You can also use Outlook’s rules to move any mail from newsletters, or mailing lists to their own folders from the inbox, and then add the mail folder to appropriate search folder just the same as you did for a feed. 

Next, right click on each of the search folders you created and click properties.  Be sure the button to the left of “Show total number of items” is checked, and click OK. Do this for each inbox you have as well.


You now have a group of search folders that spans your PST file and organizes your Blogs and mailing lists into a more manageable layout.  Remember to do this for each PST file Outlook accesses, or use Outlook rules to move the message to the appropriate folder in your Personal Folders PST.

Next, click on the shortcut button at the bottom of the navigation pane again and click on“Add New Shortcut” , Navigate to the search folders and click on your newly created search folder.  Repeat for each search folder you created.  You can now Drag and Drop the search folder shortcuts to the appropriate group heading . and you are done.  Now all your reading material is organized and any new material is be automatically sorted and presented in a more meaningful manner.

Add a new shortcut for each separate inbox you have, and place them under the “Incoming”  Heading.  I also have a shortcut to each junk mail folder and deleted items folder placed under the “Filing Cabinet” header so I don’t forget to empty them or scan them quickly for misplaced mail.  My set of folders looks like this:


There is one last thing to note.  Unless you intend to keep every last feed, status update, and tweet forever, you should change the auto archive setting for each folder the mail actually gets delivered to.  For most feeds and tweets I have set the root folder to automatically delete each feed, tweet, and update after they are more than three days old. I accomplished this by right clicking the folder and choosing properties.


Then click the “Auto Archive” tab and set the folder up as follows

image Every time you subscribe to a new feed you must do the above step.  By default, regardless of what the auto archive settings are, new feed folders are set to never archive.  Very quickly you will have a PST folder that is so large Outlook hangs if you are following a number of prolific writers.

Finally, after I set each folder up with how long I want to keep it I set Auto archive to run every day.  To find this setting click on the Tools Menu, click Options, click on the Other Tab and Click on the “AutoArchive…” button.  Then set your options to look like this:


The primary thing here is to be sure that the checkbox at the top is checked and it is set to run every day.  

If you want to keep a specific post or email, simply highlight the post in the main window and click the send to OneNote button.  It will now be in the unfiled notes section in one note ready to be tagged and filed in your reference section in OneNote.


If an email or post requires just a single next action or just the scheduling of an appointment, it is a pain in the butt to send it to OneNote and then back to Outlook.  So to deal with that you can do one of two things, just flag it so it appears on the todo list or create a task or appointment with a macro.  I prefer to use the macros because I can then be sure the task will have a proper subject.  The task list is about next actions, and next actions begin with a verb.  (“Do  something” or” Call someone” for example.) After much mucking about on my own, I found numerous helpful people on the web who had done something similar.  So with much trial and error I now have two buttons on their own tool bar named “ Create Task from Mail” and “Create Appointment from Mail” 

The Create Appointment macro, I found here, and the Create Task macro I found here. ( The task macro was written for Outlook 2003 but I have found it to work in 2007 as well.) There are instructions on how to add the macros to Outlook here.  

Now we need to create a toolbar to put those macros where we can easily access them when we need them.  Click Tools –> Customise.


The Customise window appears, Click “New…” and  name your new toolbar (I left it as custom 1because  I already have a GTD toolbar), and  a toolbar will appear to the right of the window.

imageClick the  Commands tab and highlight Macros category.  Drag you newly created macros onto the tool bar. You should now have a tool bar that looks like this.


Right click on each of the buttons and rename them to something that is less wordy.  You can change the button image if you like.  You can also drag to “Send to OneNote button to this tool bar as well.  Then when you are done modifying click the close button at the bottom of the Customise window.  Drag your new toolbar up to the other tool bars reside and place where it is accessible to you, and we are done with the set up, for now…. (insert evil laugh here).

So what have we accomplished.  A mail, blog post, tweet or status update comes into Outlook.  It is sorted into the appropriate search folder automatically.  Those items that are just short term reading or not important information can be left alone after they are read because they are cleared out automatically in a day or so.  There is a one button action if you need to book an appointment, there is an action button if you need to assign a next action, and there is an action button (send to OneNote) if it needs to be kept for future reference or is needing to be developed into a full project.  A little more processing in OneNote is all that needs to be done and the process section of GTD is done.

Now while I could stay with Outlook (there will be another macro or two before we are finished) for the next post, I think I will move on to OneNote so that the processing step will be complete before I go on to Do.


  1. Hi,

    All your screenshots are missing. Would you be kind enough to re upload them?

    Thanks a lot!

  2. Unfortunately I was messing about with blogger's settings a few years ago and lost them. (can you say n00b mistake?) I am now using Outlook 2013 so I cannot easily recreate them. Sorry. :(