1. I don’t use “tasks” in Outlook (I don’t like them for various reasons: for reminders, for unnecessary distinction between “today’s tasks” and “yesterday’s tasks”, and for other things).
2. I have two categories: a “Follow-up” category (with dark-red color) and a “Waiting For” category (with light-red color). I created two search folders by category and dragged them in “favorite folders” for easy access to e-mails under these categories.
3. I review “Follow-up” category every once in a while (at least every morning, sometimes several times per day – when I quickly want to get a feeling of what is the full picture of my tasks, or when I have too many of them – I try to keep them <30). “Follow-up” means “the next action is in my hands, and by quickly looking at e-mail it’s apparent what this action is”. By default (left-click) I would tag an e-mail with “Follow-Up” category, so it’s one-click tagging.
4. I review “Waiting for” category every once in a while, but more rarely than “Follow-up”. “Waiting For” means “somebody needs to do something before I can do my next action, and it’s apparent what I am waiting for by quickly looking at e-mail”. If I am waiting for something for too long, I move it to “Follow-up” so that I could take a nagging action or some other action to handle the underlying issue.
5. For bigger tasks or tasks that can’t easily be seen in an e-mail I do either of the following:
a. Add a project in OneNote project’s list. For most of the projects I also have a separate page (in the same section) and I can drag relevant e-mails into this page – for quick access. Next time I will review project list, choose that I want to work on project B, open project’s page, look at my most recent note, and if it requires an action on a specific e-mail, I’ll open it up right from OneNote.
b. Create an e-mail to self (sometimes attaching some extra e-mails) – I do this rarely and only for small isolated/self-contained tasks.
This approach isn’t strictly GTD style: I don’t have list of all next actions for all of my projects, instead I have list of e-mail actions – tagged with “Follow-up”, and I also have mini-lists of actions for each project – on project’s page in OneNote. However, it works for me very well, because I am typically not interested in moving all projects forward at the same speed. More frequently I have 2-3 projects which are high priority, and I switch between them frequently (and poll these lists frequently). When team decides on different priorities, it’s super-easy to switch tasks: I don’t have to shuffle my action lists, I just change priority of the project in project list, and stop polling for this project’s actions. It’s also easy to bring back the context when the project becomes actual again.
Going back to “task from e-mail” problem – if looking at e-mail, task is not apparent, it means that it’s either another puzzle piece for existing project, or a new project – worth adding a page in OneNote. In many cases the original e-mail isn’t necessary: I can derive tasks and write them in my own words. Then I can sometimes fit it in project description right in the projects list (without having to add a separate page with extra context).
6. For non-e-mail things that I wait for, I create an e-mail to self and tag it as “waiting for”. This is very efficient process and I do it frequently (in the contrast to writing e-mail to self and tagging as “follow-up”: I do it rarely).
7. When I skim an e-mail and understand that I’ll have to do some action on it (not sure what), or I’ll have to read it more carefully, etc, I just quickly tag it with “Follow-Up”. When I am in “Follow-Up” mode, I do actually read carefully all e-mails. Sometimes I tagged 3-5 messages in the same thread – I remove tags from everywhere except the last one, or the one for which the action is most obvious.
8. In rare cases I edit original e-mail to store extra info right there (Outlook allows to do it: “other actions”, “edit message”). This is useful technique for personal e-mails or for mails to self, or for mails that need action but I won’t have to reply them. In most cases I wouldn’t do that because when action is “reply”, I don’t want to accidentally send this extra information.
9. Reviewing 30 items only looks hard when you do it first time. After looking at the same list many times, I would spend maybe a second per e-mail for items that I already saw. So it’s actually pretty cheap to do full review: say, I have 30 follow-up items, 30 waiting for items, 30 projects, 10 projects with extra context pages, and only 2 of them are “active” (high priority). If I don’t do any action, just review would take me a minute in Outlook (30+30 = 60 seconds) and another minute or less in OneNote – 2 minutes. I can easily afford doing it several times per day.