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I use the word "inbox" in the generic GTD sense, i.e. anywhere that "stuff" can accumulate, awaiting processing.

At work, I receive a lot of emails. I also go to a lot of meetings at which I pick up a lot of actions and partially-digested thoughts in my notebook. People also call me, leave me voicemails, and appear at my desk throughout the day.

I'm finding that I'm simply not able to complete the processing phase of GTD, because by the time I've organized one batch of stuff, more has arrived. I have resorted to doing emergency scans, and accepting that my inbox will not get to zero.

My "doing" time is being squeezed, and I'm failing to get on top of things. Spending more time at work is not an option, as I have a family and I have promised myself that they are my priority.

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Are you delegating enough? –  Raystafarian Mar 23 at 22:56

2 Answers 2

up vote 18 down vote accepted
  1. Automate
  2. Accelerate
  3. Delegate
  4. Delete

Automate

The first thing to do is make sure you are taking advantage of automation as much as you can. Your email can be sorted automatically into different folders, allowing you to choose which ones you don't need to look at now. Mailing list subscriptions, for example. You can also automate, at least partially, how things move from your email inbox to your action lists if you're using the right toolset.

You can also reduce friction on your voicemail processing if you use a service that does voice-to-text and sends you email. The transcriptions are never perfect, but they're often good enough to understand, and I read even bad transcriptions a lot faster than most people talk, saving me the listening time. Google Voice does this kind of thing, there are other services that do too.

Accelerate

Overall, you have to get through your processing faster. You aren't going to reduce the number of items that hit your inbox (well, unless you change jobs or have a big failure that reduces your responsibilities, which I suspect is not an acceptable solution). You aren't going to have a lot of success changing other people's behavior, although you may be able to get them to send you an email followup after they appear at your desk which could be a small help. So you're left with getting through it all more quickly.

Be careful to limit how much work you do as "processing". Don't let "organize", "review" or "do" sneak in to processing time. An inbox item that triggers a new project might best be entered into your system as a "Plan new project" next action, rather than being added to the project list and an action created right then. For another example, I have a lot of email that gets processed from my inbox to a @Reply folder, with a Next Action on my task list to "R&R [email subject]", meaning Research and Reply. That processing takes under 2 seconds, with an Outlook Quick task and keyboard shortcut. If it's a really short reply, (2 Minute Rule) you can do it while processing, but be certain you are really staying under 2 minutes. I periodically set up a timer and reset for each email to check myself. Yes, it slows down the processing for that session, but it is good to retrain my sense of how long (or short!) 2 minutes really is.

Delegate

If you have people working for you, or colleagues who share responsibilities, hand off categories of work. That can let you get whole chunks of communication out of your inbox. Simplify tracking that work by making reporting on it part of the delegation, don't plan to go ask about it.

Delete

Look for clues that help you discard things faster. "Delete" is a valid outcome from processing - not all good ideas need to be done. And not all ideas in the inbox are good. There may be classes of things that hit your inbox that never need action from you, in which case you can automate (step 1) getting rid of them.

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Outlook rules (or equivalents) are extremely helpful for mitigating crud as well as putting important stuff to the front of the pile. Rules save me HOURS off email backlog. Most of my rules filter away crap and just delete stuff an the spot. Because I don't need to hear the parking rules I haven't broken every other week, automatically trash that crap. –  RualStorge Mar 25 at 17:39

Right. Will try to add to @Dennis S' answer.

Mails:

Utilize rules. Make few basic rules that move mails to designated folders automatically. This way you will have better overview. Example folders: "Projects", "Meetings", "External", "Administrative" and so on... Create a "Stash" folder where you will keep uncategorised messages that have some value. Move all mails there. Keep your inbox empty. If your inbox is now huge, just pick a date back in time and archive everything before that. Delete stuff. Notifications, birthday wishes, holiday notes and the likes. Get in the habit of deleting this type of mails fast.

Meetings:

Ask for meeting minutes to be sent to you. Take pictures of larger information instead of taking notes. Ask to leave the meetings if your participation is no longer of any use.

People coming over:

Think of part (or two) of the day where you will not be disturbed. Say before 11:30. Just tell them you are busy and to come back to you later. They should do that, not you. (There are exceptions of course, but use your best judgement).

General thoughts:

If you are constantly overloaded talk with your managers. Try to find a way to unload some work off your back. No need to use fancy applications. Use mail, calendar/alarm/reminders and a simple notebook right in front of you. Take a small break now and then. Get up, stretch, eat an apple.

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