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I want to use Outlook folders to implement GTD so that I don't have to use a separate program.

How can I set up Outlook folders to be GTD lists?

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@Tom, Thanks :) – Shiraz Bhaiji Jul 2 '11 at 16:53
up vote 11 down vote accepted

If almost all your open items arrive by email, then it can be advantageous to manage the emails themselves as representing the open items. Outlook folders are somewhat inflexible because you can only view one folder at a time. Instead, if you're using Outlook I would suggest creating custom views that let you select whichever subset of your items you want to look at. Here's how I use Outlook flags, categories, and custom views to manage all my open loops within my Outlook inbox folder.

I. Use flags to mark items open and closed. In Outlook, I click the little red flag on any email that represents an open loop I need to do something about. When I get it done, I click the flag again to turn it into a checkmark.

II. Create a custom view to see the open items. If "Current View" isn't already on your toolbar, go to Tools -> Customize -> Commands -> Views -> Current View and drag it onto the toolbar. Now click Current View -> Define Views -> New, name it

  • 0 - Open Items

Ok -> Filter -> More Choices -> Only items which are flagged by me -> Ok -> Ok -> Apply View.

Now you're viewing only the items you flagged, as soon as you click the flag to make it a checkmark, the item disappears from the view. It's still in the inbox, of course, and if you need to go back to see it, you can click Current View -> Messages to see all items, then go back to Current View -> 0 - Open Items to return to only flagged items.

III. Use Outlook categories to mark context buckets. Every open item should be put in a context bucket, by giving it a category in Outlook. Different people may need different context buckets depending on their work and their work style. In my case, almost all my work is "on the computer", so I right-clicked the Category column, clicked "All Categories" and created the following categories for myself:

  • 1 - Task [ie, under 10 minutes, at the computer, to do today]
  • 1 - Longer Task [ie, over 10 minutes, but not worth subdividing, to do this week]
  • 1 - Ask Coworker [ie, I intend to ask when I meet with them today]
  • 2 - Expecting Development [ie, I plan to take some action if the development fails to occur]
  • 2 - On Hold [ie, things I could do this week, but I have decided to wait]
  • 2 - Open Question [ie, problems I don't know how to solve yet]
  • 3 - Temporary Reference [ie, no action needed yet, but I expect to refer to it soon]
  • URGENT [ie, occasional items that suddenly take top priority]

IV. Create a custom view to see the open items in each context bucket. Current View -> Define Views -> New, name it according to the name of the context bucket, Ok -> Filter -> More Choices -> Categories -> (select the category) -> Ok -> and also check "Only items which are flagged by me" -> Ok -> Ok -> Apply View.

This lets me easily switch between viewing different context buckets by clicking Current View. For example, I view the items under "1 - Task", do each task and click the flag to make it disappear. I keep the system working by periodically working through the items in each context bucket.

Extra notes:

  • The numbers I use before each context are to make the list sort roughly by how often I need to review and empty each context bucket. I usually need to process "0 New" items almost hourly and keep the "0 New" bucket empty, but I get by with reviewing "2 Open Questions" monthly and I never can empty all of them.

  • You can use SQL filters to create any views you find useful. I'm fond of "0 New and flagged items" selected by Filter -> SQL -> Edit Criteria:

("" > 1)
("urn:schemas:httpmail:read" = 0)

  • To see a count of how many items are in each bucket, I use Current View -> Customize Current View -> Group By -> Sensitivity. Since all the messages I get are "Sensitivity Normal", this makes Outlook show "Sensitivity: Normal (34 items)".

  • Sometimes an email represents an open item I need to do something about, but its subject line doesn't remind me of why it's an open item or what action I should take. When it's severe, I may forward the email to myself just to change the subject line to reflect the next action I intend to do about it.

  • I haven't figured out any way to track overall progress of large projects in Outlook, so I still keep a separate document to hold a high-level overview of large projects.

  • For the occasional open items that don't arrive by email, I send email to myself.

EDIT: When I wrote the above, I used custom views. But since then, I have switched to use search folders to do the same thing. Despite their name, search folders aren't like regular folders; you can keep something in your inbox AND have it appear in a search folder. In my case, each search folder is set to a search for only items with an active flag and a particular category. The advantage of search folders is that you can now display your selected buckets in the far upper-left of Outlook, along with recent counts of the number of emails currently in each bucket.

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E-mails are not meant to be actionable, thus they aren't GTD tasks on their own.

So, I'm going to assume that you will use the Task system as that's where tasks are meant to be.

Creating a new list of tasks.

Easily create a task from an e-mail.

Drag an e-mail to the Tasks button.

Creating new tasks and putting them into sub folders.

When you click on the Tasks button, you can create new Tasks and put existing tasks into folders.

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I recently saw a DACO webinar on the issue (although I use a different mail program). My mail management had been sluggish for a long time due to a conceptual mistake: when a mail required an action, I used to put it in a folder called "1.Actions", and used it right away as a list of actions. The problem is that, usually, the action each mail requires from you is not immediately evident from reading the mail's subject. And an action list must be obvious as if written for a 7-year kid (because sometimes your mental clarity is like that).

¿The solution? The folder in the email program would rather be called "Action support". When you move any mail that requires an action from you to that folder, you figure out very clearly the action ('Mark re: budget' 'draft response to Fred', 'Check out hotel prices for Brian'), AND you register those actions in a list outside the email program (in my case, it is my @computer paper list).

That way, when you're ready to do the action, you can easily refer to the needed mail by going to "Action support". Once you're done, you move the mail you will no longer need to a different folder (you can create folders for particular projects, or manage with a simple "Archive" folder and trust text search). It is also a good practice to revise this "Action support" folder during your weekly review routine, to make sure it is kept current and does not become a 'black hole'.

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  1. Create a @pend folder on items you are waiting for response on.
  2. Same for @someday (/maybe)
  3. Use Outlook tasks to review them as part of your Weekly Review.
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If you prefer a ready solution rather than hacking-about, there is a commercial Outlook GTD plugin from Netcentrics. I have not used them myself though, so take this with a grain of salt.

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folders can be good for holding contexts. What I find invaluable in Outlook is that several emails contain not just action items but also good reference material. I use the categories to create file system that works just as well for electronic filing as a four drawer file cabinet does for paper.

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I developed a system called Control Your Day (CYD) using Microsoft Outlook that uses virtual search folders to implement GTD using Outlook. You can find out more about CYD at

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I use some VBA code I wrote to mimic a "snooze" feature in Outlook.

Essentially, the VBA makes Outlook work like Inbox by Google. The VBA:

  • lets me "snooze" e-mails in the Inbox for a number of days I pick and hide it (using view filters)
  • if a new e-mail comes in matching a "snoozed" e-mail then it categories the message with a message so when I open the e-mail I'll know there are e-mails in the same conversation that are hidden
    • when the a "snoozed" email's timer is up it automatically shows back up in the Inbox
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