My Current Workflow System

Several people have written to ask how I am managing my current workflow. Most of those writing are “GTD practitioners” (inspired by David Allen’s bestseller, Getting Things Done [affiliate link]) who are specifically interested in what software tools I am using. So, I thought I would I would dedicate a post to providing an overview of my current practices.

GTD Workflow Diagram (Modified)

My current computer is an Apple MacBook Pro with a 2.4 GHz processor and 4 GB of memory. I installed the new Leopard operating system a week and a half ago, when it first came out. I made two complete backups of my hard drive before I installed it, and so far I am enjoying it.

I continue to use Microsoft Entourage as my basic e-mail and calendering program. I am not particularly happy with this software. It has been nearly four years since Microsoft has updated it, and it is showing its age.

If I could completely switch to Apple Mail and iCal, I would. However, we run on a Microsoft Exchange and Outlook based system. While I can get Mail to run with Exchange, I have not been able to use iCal. In any event, Microsoft is promising an upgrade to the complete Office suite in January.

I live in e-mail, as do most of my colleagues. I generally get 80 messages or so a day. That’s not as many as many people get, and it is down considerably from what I was getting just a year ago. However, I have proactively worked to get my name off of distribution lists that contain irrelevant content.

I make liberal use of e-mail rules. I let the software do the heavy-lifting. For example, I have an e-mail rule called “CC Mail.” This rule evaluates every message that arrives in my inbox. If I am only CC’d in the message and not addressed directly in the “TO” field, the rule marks the message as read and moves it to a folder called “CC Mail.”

I assume that these messages are lower-priority, FYI-type messages. I scan this folder every few days, just in case there is something important. Frankly, this information is rarely urgent and most of it is irrelevant. This rule alone reduces my message count by 30 percent.

I also use Entourage’s Mail List Manager to move email newsletters and other low-priority messages I eventually want to read to my “Bacn” folder. (Bacn is a term that some people are using to describe that class of email that is kind of like spam, except you actually subscribed to it.) I also use the program to mark the message as read, so it doesn’t sit in the folder as unread and tempt me to go read it now.

When I process e-mail, I try to deal with each message only once. I employ a simple rhythm of read, act, read, act—kind of like breathing. With every message, I ask, “Is this message actionable?” If it is, I take one of three actions:

  1. Do it. If the task suggested or required by the message will take less than two minutes, I do it right then and there. This is the primary reason why my to-do list is so short. The key is to learn how to define the next action. This is the antidote to procrastination. Every project is made up of numerous discrete actions. You don’t have to complete the entire project. You just have to identify the next appropriate action and do it.

    If I can’t do the task in two minutes or less, I add it to my to-do list. Currently, I am using iGTD. Is a great program for implementing David Allen’s system. It works well with Entourage, so I can just press an F-key (user-definable), and it will copy an email message to the program and set up a new task.

  2. Delegate. Often I am not the best one to do the task. If so, then I delegate to someone else. By the way, don’t think that because you don’t have an assistant, you can’t delegate tasks. People delegate to me all the time. Even if you don’t have an assistant you can do this. If you can’t afford to hire an assistant, you should consider a “virtual assistant” as described in Tim Ferris’s excellent book, The 4-Hour Workweek [affiliate link]. I recommend GetFriday.com in Bangalore, India. I have personally used them and found them to be excellent. You can buy ten hours a month for $120 a month. This is more than enough for many people.

    By the way, whenever I delegate a task, I BCC myself. This creates a copy of the message in my inbox. I then use an email rule and an Apple script I developed to add the message to iGTD as a “waiting for” item. This is like a pending file, so that I can track every single delegated task. It is so efficient it is scary. It is the cornerstone of my follow-up system and insures than nothing falls through the cracks. By the way, the same email rule marks the message as read and files it away. The whole process is invisible.

  3. Defer. Sometimes things are actionable, but they are not actionable now. For example, if I want to buy tickets to an upcoming David Wilcox concert, but they don’t go on sale for two weeks. I simply enter the task on my calendar on the day I want to take the action. I indicate that it is an “All Day” event, which simply means that it is not assigned to a specific time. It just appears at the top of my calendar.

If the message is not actionable, I take one of two actions:

  1. File. If I think I might want to refer to this message later, I file it. If I am in doubt, I file it. But here’s the key: I file everything—and I mean everything—in one single file called, “Processed Mail.” I have seen people create an elaborate system of folders and subfolders. All this does is slow them down. “Should I make a copy of the message and file a copy in both Sam’s folder and Jeff’s folder since it relates to both of them, or should I just file it under the project name?”

    These kinds of questions lead to unnecessary complexity and procrastination. I file everything under one folder and let Spotlight find the messages I need whenever I need them. (There are similar programs for Windows.)

    Nothing will speed up your email processing more than using this technique in combination with the two-minute rule described above. They will cut your email processing time down to a fraction of what it was.

  2. Delete. If I don’t think I will need the message again, I simply delete it. However, if in doubt, I file it. Hard disk space is plentiful and it is not worth spending more than a second on this decision.

The above process is kind of a “snapshot” into my world. It may be different next week or next month. I am constantly on the lookout to gain more efficiency, so I am always trying new things.

Question: What software or techniques are you using that work well? Some of the best tips I have learned from my readers, so please share your insights!
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  • Mark

    Michael,

    What made you change from vitalist to igtd? And also how does the igtd look on the iphone?

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Unfortunately, iGTD doesn’t work on the iPhone. However, I found Vitalist too cumbersome. I couldn’t automate it, and this is the key to my system. Thanks.

  • http://metropolitanmama.blogspot.com Stephanie

    Great post! I use Apple mail, iCal, and good old-fashioned “to-do” lists to manage my work.

  • http://emuelle1.blogspot.com Eric S. Mueller

    Most of the email that I get at work is just junk. People make extremely liberal use of all hands lists and the “Reply to all” function. I recently got so frustrated with this that I created a folder called “All Hands Crap” and set an Outlook rule to route all messages sent to the all-hands lists directly to that folder.

    Compounding my frustration is the fact that two managers resend every single all-hands email back to the same all-hands list “just in case you didn’t get this”, which triples the amount of time I have to spend deleting non-pertinent email.

    I also have rules that route emails from certain people directly to my deleted items folder, as in three years on this job I have never gotten an email from them that mattered to me.

    I hate to sound so frustrated, but I do yearn for email that contains an action more pertinent than “delete”.

  • Linda

    A lot of my emails are for scheduling the use of equipment for a room. When I get emails in, I cut the email, and paste it into Outlook’s calendar. This is such a handy feature because I don’t have the email clutter, but at same time, I have access to all the emal info in my calendar.

    When I was prepping for a conference, I created a conference folder. When I got an email with a presentation in, I downloaded the file. Then I used Outlook’s options to expire the email (draws a line through it), and moved it to the conference folder. The line through told me I had downloaded the presentation, but I had the email handy if I needed to refer back to it. After the conference was over, I deleted the entire folder.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com Lawrence W. Wilson

    Mike, do you use this or a similar system for personal e-mail?

    Some of the busiest e-mail users I know use only one e-mail address for all purposes. Others seem to prefer having separate e-mail lives.

    Corporate policies make virtually all e-mail read at work–or even outside work–company property if accessed on a company machine, so privacy is hard to come by in either case.

    Any thoughts?

  • Glenn Sasscer

    Hi Mike;

    Excellent post. I adopted a similar method of “touch-it-once” philosophy impressed upon me by a former employer. This definitely cuts down on the workday and procrastination.

    Another thing I try to do is keep my inbox down to one window in length. With a preview window, this means my inbox can only take up half my computer screen, which is about a dozen messages or less. This is largely due to receiving an average of about 150 – 200 messages a day (this is a true average and not an exaggeration – I have seen days topping 500 emails). I work from a home office, thus email is the primary method to communicate with coworkers, customers, etc. I know some folks let their inbox overflow until the end of the month or until it reaches some breaking point. If I do not work at keeping my inbox clean, it becomes too easy to lose information or miss important messages.

    By the way, that is 150 – 200 emails with my email rules eliminating many of the junk postings and spam. Another note is to suggest a weekly review of your junk/span folders to find important emails that may have been snagged by your rules filter – then clear the folder.

    I like your idea of keeping the messages in more general sub-folders. I tend to try to keep the folders descriptive, but your point of seeing this slow you down in finding the data is well noted. A quick scan of my sub-folders finds many with only one email in them – what good is that?

  • http://alwayswintertime.blogspot.com Scott Winter

    I am an avid Franklin Covey fan, and I am surprised at how many people that use the paper planner don’t know that they also have software. You can get a stand-alone version, or they have an Outlook plug-in (the one I use).

    It turns your Outlook into a virtual Franklin Planner, incorporating all the familiar task and note-taking features. If you use their methodology, I highly recommend it.

    Now, if they would just make mobile applications for the BlackBerry…

  • http://www.logon.ie/internet-marketing-blog/ Alastair McDermott

    I trialled GetFriday for 3 months but had to recently give up after poor delivery time after time. I’ve found that hiring higher quality but more expensive VA services has been much more cost effective.

  • Karen

    Michael, I too find Entourage less than satisfactory. I stick with it though, because I am used to Tasks. I arrange them in GTD fashion. How would you deal with ToDo’s in iCal, since it is arranged by priorities? It does seem like going with iCal/Mail would remove a layer of complexity imposed by Entourage… Thanks for this great post.

  • mark

    Michael, Just stumbled across your blog from a link on another site & am enjoying it immensely. As I don’t use an exchange server, I don’t have any personal experience with this, but I have a few friends who have used Groupcal from snerdware.com to sync ical with Microsoft Exchange.

  • http://www.joshmac.net Joshua Parker

    I was so happy to read that you are still a MacBook flippa. Isn’t Leopard awesome.

  • http://www.joshmac.net Joshua Parker

    I was so happy to read that you are still a MacBook flippa. Isn’t Leopard awesome.

  • http://BuyIndyNow.com Derek Crager

    Michael,
    Check out a GTD web tool called http://GTDInbox.com that works with FF to implement GTD within Gmail.

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  • D. Shick

    I just want you to know how much I appreciate your posts which give insight to the way you (and others who comment) have learned to streamline your busy lives. I learn so much. Thank you.

  • Doorga

    Nice article I found it interesting here is another one http://evanderheide.demon.nl/reason/My+current+wo

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  • http://www.mightyrasing.com Mighty

    Great workflow! I'm almost done reading David Allen's GTD. I'm implementing his system now and it's great! Helps me gain a better sense of control of the stuff I have to do. :) Yours is a great example of a GTD personalized workflow.

  • mightyrasing

    Good post! :D I am almost done reading David Allen's GTD and based on what I have done so far, it is an amazing system! I just want to personalize the system so I can further maximize it for myself. :D

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  • Andrew

    Reading mail only once is idea I’m using for a while now. Read – Decide – Place_To_List process together with checking mail only twice a day saved me from all the overload mails used to produce.

    And I like your picture describing this process. It is much clearer than commonly used workflow picture from David Allen (like this one http://tufuga.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/gtd_quickref.png)

  • Miguel Suarez

    How does this relate to your note-taking based on the bullet journal?