Getting Things Done With Gmail

Photo by Stephen Phillips – on Unsplash

Gmail is the most popular email service in the world. Most of us have used it for years and are pretty comfortable using it to read and send emails. However, there’s a difference between knowing how to use email and knowing how to manage email. If you don’t have a system to help you stay organized, the hundreds of emails you get each week will quickly overwhelm you. So, here’s how to use the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology to manage your Gmail inbox.

Try the Two-Minute Rule

Here’s a common scenario. Your inbox is filling up with emails so it’s time for you to sit down and see what’s actually worthy of your attention. How do you decide what to work on first? Let’s start with the two-minute rule.

If you can read and take care of an email in two minutes or less, then do it. That means, write a quick reply, forward it to someone else, archive it, or delete it. If an email takes less than two minutes of your time, deal with it now and then move on to the next one. It’s a quick and easy way to start emptying your inbox.

Using GTD Labels in Gmail

If you can’t deal with an email in two minutes or less, then it typically falls into one of two categories:

  1. Email that will take more than two minutes to deal with
  2. Email that you can’t reply to because you are waiting on the actions of others

Emails in the first category just need more of your time. For instance, you might have an email from a frustrated parent of one of your students. In order to give that email the attention it needs, you’re going to have to think carefully about how best to write that reply. It won’t take you an hour, but it will take longer than two minutes.

For emails like this, you’re going to create and apply a label called @Action. Putting the “@” symbol (or a hyphen) before the word “Action” will ensure it sits (alphabetically) at the top of your list of labels.

Emails in the second category are there because you are waiting for someone else to do something before you can reply, archive, or delete it. For instance, if you emailed your principal about prospective dates for an upcoming field trip, you need them to reply to you before you can book something with the museum. For emails like this, you are going to create and apply a label called @Waiting For.

Use this method as you continue to work through your emails. Can you deal with it in two minutes or less? Great! Do it! If not, label it as @Action or @Waiting For and work on these emails when you have more time.

Setting up a Gmail Inbox for GTD

Once your email has been labeled, you want to make sure that it is organized in a way that allows you to process it efficiently. One of the best ways to do this is to customize your Gmail inbox. There are a couple of ways you could do this, but I like Google’s Priority Inbox option. It allows you to group the emails in your inbox by the labels we just set up. Here’s how it works.

Using Gmail With Google Tasks

The Priority Inbox is a great way to organize your email, but there may be times where you want to add an email directly to your task manager. Sometimes you get emails that are part of a larger project you are working on. Adding an email like this to your task manager is a better place for it because that is where you work on projects or tasks that require ongoing attention.

If you know how to use Google Tasks for Getting Things Done, you can use the button at the top of an email to add it to a list in Google Tasks. When an email is added to Google Tasks, it includes a link to the original email. This means you can archive the email and remove it from your inbox. If you need to reference the email again, simply click the link in the task to recall it.

Regular Email Reviews

Of course, the GTD method for processing emails is only going to work if you make a point of regularly reviewing your “@Action” and “@Waiting For” emails. If you let things sit in there with no further work on your part, then your inbox will quickly get out of control. Email is something that you have to revisit and work on when you have time, just like a to-do list.

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7 thoughts on “Getting Things Done With Gmail”

  1. Jonathan, this is my third extremely intensive attempt to apply the GTD method to my email inbox. I am so excited. This actually WORKED. I was excited this morning (rather than dreading) getting up and looking at my email inbox. I can breathe a sigh of relief. Thank you so much for this information.

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