Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done

I’ve wanted to implement the Getting Things Done (GTD) process, especially since I deal with so much email on a daily basis.  After years of haphazardly adopting a subset of the GTD practices, I finally decided that 2009 was going to be the year that I got my inbox, and productivity, under control.

Being a “knowledge worker”, the work I do on a daily basis depends on so many other people both inside my team and outside my team, so a lot of work is done in email and in meetings.  Because of this, the volume of email that I get can be absolutely crazy at times, as everyone else at Microsoft (and other large tech companies) can attest to.

After about a week of re-reading David Allen’s awesome book and listening to Merlin’s Man’simage great podcast (and interview with David Allen), I was ready to dive into transforming how I deal with email and tasks.

One of the first things I did was to bug Mike and Omar, who are the closest thing to productivity gurus that I know personally. Both of them were great in fielding my random questions, giving tips and even pointing out apps and Outlook customizations that might help me in my quest for email nirvana.  Mike even survived my barrage of questions during a recent lunch we had to catch up with what has been going on since we last met up. Little did he know, I was going to turn out social lunch into “GTD 101” 🙂

As of last Tuesday, I’m happy to say that all my hard work paid off.  I finally got to Inbox Zero!  Prior to this, I had over 5000 items in my inbox. 

Getting to this milestone involved a lot more than just hitting the <delete> key (although not being afraid to delete emails is a key step in all of this).  It also involved creating a sustainable workflow in Outlook 2007, which is our lifeblood at Microsoft.  Getting that workflow implemented required a lot of customization in the UI as well as VBA macros.  Another big thanks to Mike for sharing his tips for customizing Outlook – it really got me off to a running start.  My workflow is a very close to his, with some subtle but important differences that make it work better for me.

Here’s a screenshot I took of my inbox about 30 seconds after I cleared the last email out on Tuesday at 10:45pm:


Some important things I learned out of this process:

  1. No amount of software tools is going to help you – you need to commit mentally to the process and have a sustainable workflow that makes sense to you.
  2. While the entire GTD workflow is important, don’t be afraid to customize certain portions of it for your liking. For example, I don’t use many of the @ categories like @Work and @Calls.  Just find something that works for you.
  3. Don’t be afraid of the <DELETE> key. Delete, delete, delete!
  4. The upfront costs you need to invest in seem like a lot, but it’s really not.  The payoff you get in productivity improvement is worth it.  I’m already experiencing less mental weight and improved productivity after 3 days of jumping in.

I’ll be blogging continually on the topic of GTD and productivity, since it’s now a topic that I’m even more passionate about.  Using Outlook 2007, and being inside a corporate environment, I found it hard to adopt some of the existing ideas I read on various blogs.  So hopefully my future writing on my workflow within the constraints of my environment will help someone else and also act as a form of an archive so that if I ever need to explain my specific process to someone else, I can just have them read the stuff I write about on this blog.