Here is a heopfully not too rambling yet probably inadequate explanation of my new GTD/Gmail system. GTD stands for “Getting Things Done” and is a organizational system by David Allen. You can read more about it here or here. I adapted my Gmail setup using a modified version of this Lifehacker Gmail/GTD system.
Here are the key components. I’ve turned on some of the Gmail Labs features (should be under your Gmail settings). Specifically, I use Superstars and Multiple Inboxes. Superstars gives me multiple choices other than simply starring individual emails (red or yellow exclamation points, orange arrows, etc.) Multiple inboxes lets me have, you guessed it, multiple inboxes showing on my main Gmail page.
When you create another inbox you tell Gmail what you want displayed in that inbox. For example, the inbox I’ve labeled “Needs Assigning” displays only emails that have the default Gmail star. How does an email get that star? I’ve created two Gmail filters that automatically star any email that includes in the subject “&c” or “&h” which are my shorthand for a to-do item that needs to be done at church (&c) or at home (&h). When Gmail sees “&c” I’ve created a filter that tells Gmail to 1) skip the inbox 2) star it and 3) apply the label “Church” and a similar filter handles &h the same way except for giving it the label “Home”.
One of the key GTD principles is that whenever you think of a task that needs to be done, you immediately record it somewhere so that it will end up on your to-do list or in your GTD system. Some peopel use a simple pad of paper to write tasks down. I use my IPhone. So if I’m at dinner with my wife and I suddenly remember that I need to make a phone call to John tomorrow, then I quickly pull out my IPhone and send an email to myself with the subject “Call John &c” and when Gmail gets it it will automatically put it into my “Needs Assigning” inbox.
Then tomorrow I will look and see that “Call John” needs assigning, and I’ll change the star to a red exclamation point. Gmail knows that the inbox labeled “Immediate Action” is for emails with the red exclamation point. I also use the red ! for emails that need a reply (this helps keep my main inbox empty). My other inboxes: “Next Action” is for yellow !’s which are things that aren’t so time sensitive but still need attention in the near future. They are individual tasks, not large projects. Large projects go in the next inbox, “Ongoing Projects.” So I might have something like “Paint the House” in my projects inbox, but in my next action inbox I might have “Choose paint color for house.” And finally, there is the “Future Ideas” inbox for things that I don’t need to do right now but I don’t want to lose sight of.
For some people this system is enough, but I still like my to-do lists with due dates. So at the beginning of the week I go through these inboxes and put my weekly tasks on my Remember the Milk list. But my RTM list is only for things that need to be done in the current week. If it’s longer term than that it goes to Gmail. RTM is also good for repeating tasks that you need to do each day, week or month.
I’m sure some people think my system is too complex or not complex enough, but that’s why it is my system and not yours. 🙂